on March 15, 2010
Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the main attractions to the Peruvian colonial town of Arequipa. Technically it is a convent, and was founded in 1580. Although there are some nuns still living there apparently (I didn’t see any, they are in another part), it is actually a very popular tourist attraction and is also available to hire for private parties (they were preparing for one on the day we visited). The architectural style is manly colonial with some native features. It is located just a few blocks from the central plaza and is easy to walk to. The convent is large, much larger than I expected, it is like a mini-town within those walls. Wealthy and prestigious sixteenth and seventeenth century families sent their daughters here and they paid a handsome dowry to the convent. They would also send gifts to their daughter and many nuns also had several servants. You tour the convent with an official uniformed (female) guide and she will show you parts of the convent where the nuns used to live. This is when you discover why the convent is so large. Originally there was a dormitory for the nuns but this was damaged in an earthquake, so the nun’s families paid for them to have individual cells or rooms. Whilst some nuns would just have had a small private room, some actually had small houses with servant’s quarters and kitchens. These privileged nuns would have been sent fine bone china, rugs and other decorative gifts from their families. At one time there were parties held there often with musicians invited in from outside. The nuns themselves didn’t actually leave the convent once they were admitted fully, they were cloistered, but their servants left to visit the market and get everything that they needed. The convent remained cloistered until 1970. It wasn’t all wild parties; there was one Seventeenth century nun who is in the process of being officially given sainthood. She allegedly performed a number of healing miracles and predicted disease, healing and death in others. Our guide also told us, in reverent tones, of how one of the past nuns (if not the sister awaiting beatification) had stigmata (where she bled from the palms of her hands as if she had been nailed to the cross like Christ), but God healed her scars so no one could see them. Cynics among you may wish to draw your own conclusions! Come the late Eighteenth Century a strict Dominican nun was sent by Rome to reform the monastery. She sent the dowries back to Rome and servants could either leave or join as nuns, hence forth the monastery took on a more traditional role. Come 1970 the convent was in dire need of funding and took the decision to open its doors to the public. Our guide was very helpful and informative, and spoke very good English. She was happy to answer our questions and to give us time to take photographs. She was conscious of another tour that started around the same time as ours, and made sure that we went a slightly different route, and at no point were we rushed or held up. As I have mentioned above, the style of the buildings does have a strong colonial Spanish influence, the coloured stucco walls look bright and welcoming and very Mediterranean. The restored parts look clean and very pristine, even a bit antiseptic, especially if you take into the consideration of the hustle and bustle beyond the walls. Apart from some of the older, earthquake damaged sections which are no longer used, the buildings are well maintained. It is perfectly safe to visit the damaged rooms now, as they have been made secure. The grounds are well looked after, and include a small courtyard orangery. You can go up on one of the roofs and admire the view of the city. There are reasonable toilets, a charming but expensive gift shop, and a small café on site The monastery is open every day and costs 30 soles (approx £7) which I think represents good value as this includes a guide and we were here approximately an hour and a half. You don’t need to have a guide if you wish, but I think it was helpful in this instance. I recommend arriving booking an early slot when it is quiet and cool.
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