Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa: what the visit is like

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa: what the visit is like

South America

Like almost everything in 16th century Arequipa, it was the volcano that provided shelter for the nuns of the Santa Catalina Monastery. Or rather, the volcanic stones, called silliares, taken from the brothers Chachani and Misti, volcanoes that mark the landscape on the outskirts of the Peruvian city.

Stones that were taken to the village and used to build walls up to four meters high. Walls that separate the city from the city. Opened in 1579, just 40 years after the founding of Arequipa, the Monastery of Santa Catalina is huge: it is 20,000 m², the equivalent of four football fields.

This is not a normal religious building. Once you go beyond the walls of the monastery, you will find a series of courtyards, streets, houses and cloisters, an entire autonomous village that lived, for four centuries, isolated from Arequipa – and at the same time in the heart of the city.

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The history of the Monastery of Santa Catalina

So, set aside time for your visit and don't go there too tired, as it's almost impossible to cover everything in less than two hours.

And be grateful for the chance to visit the place, as isolation only ended in the 1970s, when a new structure was built to welcome the nuns who live there (currently there are around 20) and the old corridors and streets were opened to tourists .

Santa Catalina Monastery

Internal entrance to the Monastery

At its peak, the monastery had a population of 500 people. Around 2/3 of them were nuns, who entered as teenagers and often did not leave even after death, as there is a cemetery on site. A cemetery, a laundry room, bedrooms, houses, terraces, kitchens…

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa

Laundry room and, in the background, the door to the Monastery cemetery

With the construction financed by a rich widow, the Monastery soon became a place for powerful families. In colonial Peru, it was tradition for second children – male or female – to be dedicated to the Church. The girl had no option: when she reached the right age, she packed her bags and was sent to the Monastery, where she would live forever, in celibacy and surrendered to the Lord.

This was considered a privilege among the nobles, who still paid a dowry to the Monastery, something around 2000 silver coins. There are disagreements about what this would mean in current values, but several sources guarantee that it would be somewhere between 50 and 150 thousand dollars.

The richest even took Chinese porcelain, curtains, rugs and everything necessary to throw a party and welcome the neighbors.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Wealth that created an interesting phenomenon. If the daughters of the nobility went to the Monastery to live in seclusion, this did not mean living without comfort. They took their servants and cooks, houses were built by the families (and then sold to other rich families, after the nun's death).

Despite being an ambition of the rich, the Monastery also received some poor women. But social separation was evident in the type of housing, servants and even clothing.

This only ended in the 19th century, when there was a reform in the Catholic Church. Houses were replaced by dormitories and private kitchens were replaced by collective ones. In the 20th century, another reform allowed nuns, if they wish, to leave their cloistered life and return to society.

The physical structure has also changed over the centuries, with little remaining of the original walls. Blame it on the earthquakes.

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa

The story of Ana dos Anjos Monteagudo, Ana de los Ángeles

The Monastery also served as an asylum and as a school for noble families, who sent their daughters there early, at the age of five. In this case, the objective was to train children for marriage – this, obviously, did not happen with second daughters. When the indicated age reached, the daughter left the Monastery and committed herself to the marriage chosen by her parents.

This should have been the fate of Ana dos Anjos Monteagudo, who at the age of three was handed over by her parents to the Catalan nuns. He was removed from the Monastery at 14, when she would be thrown into the marriage chosen by her parents. But Ana decided to return, on her own, to the convent, contradicting her family and even the monastery management.

She won the parade, became a novice, nun and later Mother Superior, for three years, of the convent. Miracles and predictions were attributed to her. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II, who visited the site in 1985.

Today, many Catholics go to the Monastery to thank Sor Ana de los Ángeles, as she became known.

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa

What is the visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery like?

The Monastery opens for visitors every day, starting at 9am. Try to go on a Tuesday or Thursday, when the place closes at 8pm – it's incredible to watch the sunset change the colors of the convent. A terrace allows you to observe the entire city, including the volcanoes from which the stones were taken to build Arequipa and the Santa Catalina Monastery. On other days the place closes at 5pm.

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa

Entrance costs 45 nuevos soles. If you want to enrich your experience even further, you can book a guided tour (Spanish, English and, of course, Portunhol). It costs R$150 and already includes admission to the Monastery and also a tour of the historic center.

Without a guide, you will be given a map of the place and will have to find your way around on your own, missing out on a lot of important information.

The address is Santa Catalina 301, close to the Plaza de Armas and right in the historic center of Arequipa. More information on the official website.

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