South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

Boulevard Santa Catalina

Chapel Arches

Novices Nook

Residencia Santa Catalina

Room with Crib

Room with Trike

Santa Catalina Kitchen

Santa Catalina Pots


Copyright 2004

David Rich 2500 Words

G e t T h e e t o a N u n n e r y

There are fabulous cities all over the world but only one sits right below two 20,000-foot volcanoes and is also within day-tripping distance of Colca and Cotahuasi Canyons, reputedly the two deepest crevasses on the planet, both a thousand-plus feet over two miles deep. This fabulous city is Arequipa, Peru, with even more fantastic attractions in its city center, also unique as Peru's only palatable metropolis outside the ancient Incan capitol of Cusco. But beyond all the superlative sights, I can describe the most bewitching is a few short blocks from the city center, perhaps one of the most fascinating sites in the entire world.

There are manmade marvels from the Eiffel Tower to the Taj Mahal, and fabulous sites of nature from the Grand Canyon to Peru's Cordillera Blanca, but a third category is often overlooked in the race for fame and reverence: the woman-made site. I believe the most remarkable woman-made site on our blue-green orb is the Santa Catalina Monastery, a miniature colonial fortress in the heart of Arequipa, an old colonial city, Peru's second largest. This marvelous woman-made site is an anomaly. It's not a monastery but an exclusive de la exclusive convent, open to the public only the last 32 of its 423 years, a masterpiece of the eighteenth century, and a photographer's delight after four centuries of mystery.

But before we explore this incredible monastery in detail, consider the rest of the Arequipa story. "La Cuidad Blanca," the white city, is an apt moniker for Arequipa because its first claim to fame is its many buildings of white volcanic silla, making the city striking in both location and demeanor. Everyone in Peru knows how unique Arequipa is, swelling its population from 300,000 to a million plus in only thirty years. But Arequipa was proud from its inception because it became independent early, before the rest of Peru, issuing passports and forming a government an entire week before the remainder achieved independence in July 1821.

Arequipa's Colonial Center boasts the most photogenic Plaza de Armas in Peru, according to the guidebooks, and I thought it didn't look too shabby either. The plaza features a sprawling seventeenth century cathedral, naturally of snow-white silla, occupying its entire northern side, volcanoes glowering down from above, a splendid picture. Inside the cathedral hulks a Belgian organ so enormous it takes three people to pedal it, the second largest organ in South America. And no, I don't have the vaguest idea where the largest one is.

On the Southeast corner of the Plaza sits an old Jesuit Church, La Compania, built in 1573, some forty-plus years before the first habitation of North America by Europeans. The Church is built in contemporary Spanish style, Baroque-Mestizo, and on its east side hosts a plethora of markets offering some of the best and most reasonably priced crafts in Peru, from baby alpaca sweaters to cutesy hats and carvings.

Arequipa's museums are unparalleled. What could make a museum unparalleled when there are the Louvre and the like? Perhaps an ice maiden would do the trick, or perhaps a dozen ice maidens sacrificed 500 years ago and now rescued for close-up viewing.

The original Ice Maiden of the Andes was discovered by a 1995 expedition up the ever present volcanoes that string out behind Arequipa for hundreds of miles, up near the top of Volcan Ampato. The expedition's tip-off was red feathers protruding from the ice, and who wouldn't notice that? Scraping their fingernails to the bone, the expedition leaders dug out a prepubescent girl mummified as an Incan sacrifice, killed by a severe crunch to the head. They called her Juanita, The Ice Princess. She was one of thirteen found after Volcan Sabuncaya erupted in 1990, melting the surrounding ice caps where the Incans paid their tributes to the gods. See National Geographic Magazine, March, 1992, June 1996, and June 1998 and Newsweek Magazine, November 6, 1995. The ice maidens were sacrificed in the Incan ritual of Capac Cocha, which required the most gorgeous prepubescent virgin to be honored by trekking over 200 miles from Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire, with Incan priests climbing a 6000-meter peak, 20,000 feet. By this time the poor, beautiful teeny-boppers were mercifully half dead from frostbite and exhaustion, after which they were fed alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs, then strangled or whammed on the head as a gift to the gods. See them at the Museos Santurarios Andinos, which allows no pictures, so I gave it a pass. The Museum shows a twenty-minute National Geographic documentary and offers a twenty-five-minute tour for four dollars.

You can climb Volcans El Misti and Chacani that dominate the Arequipa skyline, enjoy whitewater rafting, explore the surrounding desert for the thousands of petroglyphs at Toro Muerte and visualize the surface of the moon at Valle de Los Volcanes, forty miles of volcanic cones over 1000 feet high, eighty craters, mas o menos.

If you really want to do the main attraction of Arequipa, you'll find it was not only worth the four-century wait, but a heck of a lot easier than climbing a volcano. Superlatives are inadequate to describe the maze of unparalleled beauty contained within the Santa Catalina Monastery ranging over a large city block of 20,000 square meters. The first thing to strike you upon entry is the large "Silencio" painted across the closest arch. Silence, how the nuns of Santa Catalina lived during their first 300 years. Beyond the Silencio arch is another arch where potted orange geraniums and elaborately shaped trees line the cobbled street, large stone pots big enough to sauté a steer, and another arch. You are beckoned onward where your senses are assaulted with dazzling burnt sienna, blood orange and Mediterranean blue. The blue knocks your eyes out, a distinctive shade I've seen nowhere in the world except at the Blue Mansion on the resort island of Penang, Malaysia. Even amateur photographers such as myself stay for hours, wandering the maze of cobble stoned streets, catching the changing light, the play of sun and shadows across beautifully planted plazas and chapels.

More diligent tourists hire a guide to find out what the Santa Catalina Monastery was and is all about. It's nearly unbelievable. For a small tip, a guide will escort you around the complex with instruction in English, French, German, or Japanese, and you will find out all. One hundred-fifty nuns lived in sequestered private apartments during the tiny walled village's first three hundred years, beginning in 1579. I pipe up with the basic questions that instantly occurred to me. "Where did the nuns come from? Who were their families and why did they become nuns?"

The pretty young guide in pinafore and alpaca sweater smiled at my eagerness. "They were young," she said. "Some as young as twelve years old were given to the monastery by their parents."

"But why would any family do that?" asked the elegant lady next to me.

"These were rich families, very rich, mostly from Arequipa. Not only did they give their daughters to the monastery, usually the second daughter, but they also donated huge dowries to pay for their upkeep, forever."

The facts kept tumbling out. Facts scarcely believable. Once they arrived, the girls would never again leave the monastery. In return the family was relieved from all sin, and each family member was promised a personal slot in heaven. The size of the girl's apartment where she would spend her entire life depended on the size of her dowry to "marry God."

The tour guide led us from the entrance, turning a sharp right into a long room of eerie yellow. "This was the novice cloister, where the girls learned to read and write before taking their vows." Ancient beams connecting the walls at the ceiling bolstered the single large room. On one side sat a bench that might accommodate four or five girls who received their schooling through wooden grills that hide their instructor. Because they learned to read and write, they became the most educated in Arequipa. After four years they could read the Bible, which qualified them to take their vows, excluding all future contact among them.

Other rules were equally strict. If a nun were to accidentally see her reflection or smell a flower, she was required to flagellate herself for penance. "There," said the guide, pointing to a wicked looking quirt of glassine in the exhibit case—a cat-'o-nine-tails. Flagellation must have occurred daily, because the monastery was jam packed with geraniums, oleanders, roses, and a dozen more lovely flowers.

The typical apartment consisted of a bed and altar adjoined by a kitchen with beehive oven fueled by wood, a matate for grinding corn, and long-handled frying pan. Cooking and cleaning didn't inconvenience the nuns. Instead, the kitchen and cleaning chores were tended to by one to three black servants, slaves, or maids, depending on the story's version. In one apartment, I saw a three-wheeled tricycle that looked more like an archaic wheelchair and in another, an anomalous cradle with fancy matching candelabras.

All apartments had ancient wooden doors, many fancily carved. The nuns had little or no contact with anyone other than their servants, yet their surroundings were of the utmost beauty, from period paintings in the apartments to individual murals decorating the arches that surrounded every chapel and plaza. And, oh, the arches and plazas and chapels, an immediate labyrinth of them, hung with fine paintings if you enjoy religious art of the eighteenth century. Many apartments fronted on the cobbled street of the monastery's longest and oldest street, Calle Toledo, each adorned with its own traditional black coach light and hanging pots of geraniums.

From 1579 to 1871 the nuns never saw another soul except their attendant servants. By 1871 the Pope had tired of their selfish solitude and sent a radical, fire-eating madre to sweep the slave servants out the door, refashioning the monastery into communal living. Thus when wandering the complex, you'll spot enormous stone jugs neatly severed into halves and deposited in two rows of ten for the communal laundry at La Lavanderia where, after 1871, the nuns faced each other across a channel of rushing water as they did their weekly wash. From there, you'll stroll along enchanting Calle Burgos past an exotic flower garden, past stairways leading nowhere, to an overview of tiled roofs tilted helter-skelter, to Playa Socodobe and its goldfish filled fountain, next to the communal baths. Because of the monastery's high walls, the only sights anyone can see beyond them are the volcanoes north of the city center. And no one can or could see in.

In short, the Monastery is breathtaking and a sight no visitor to Peru should miss. Thirty nuns remain cloistered in a small corner of the complex, never seen by the outside world, though I did spot clothes flapping from a far rooftop clothesline.

Thus if you go to Peru, get thee to a nunnery and not just any nunnery but Santa Catalina in Arequipa, both charmers de la crème. And while you're there, check out Arequipa and its many delights including those practically bottomless canyons.

How to Get To Arequipa, Peru: Fly to Lima from anywhere and connect directly to Arequipa, Peru's second largest city with a population of one million souls. From Los Angeles an advance purchase of five days will set you back $643 on LanChile Airlines or $1171 on United. Fares are slightly less from New York City and Miami but they change nigh daily so check them out on http// or any other site you might find on, or after entering "cheap airfare".

Where to Stay: The choices are unlimited but for the medium budget La Casa de me Abuela at Jerusalen 606 (241-206; is a full resort with two restaurants, internet, 40+ rooms, pet alpaca, pool, cable TV and much more from $33. double with bath. For a few dollars more check out Maison d'Elise at Av Bolgnese 104 (256-185), a nice Mediterranean-style complex with pool, big rooms plus suites and apartments with great staff, $66 to $99. For a view of the Santa Catalina Monastery from your rooftop terrace check into the La Posada del Monasterio (283 076) at Santa Catalina 300 in a wonderful colonial building with modern and comfortable rooms from $65 double including breakfast, popular with Europeans.

Where to Eat: There are an incredible number of great restaurants in the center of town near the Plaza de Armas, mostly north on Santa Catalina and San Francisco, also two decent vegetarian restaurants a block east of San Francisco on Jerusalen: Mandala at Jerusalen 207 and Lakshmivan at Jerusalen 402. One of my preferences for non-vegetarian is El Turko at San Francisco 216-A, a Turkish restaurant (one of my favorite cuisines) specializing in succulent doner kebab for slightly over a buck. I also like the Mexican restaurant (nameless) around the corner from El Turko on Uguarte; one does occasionally get homesick. There are also excellent cappuccino joints up and down San Francisco and Jerusalen. The City center is easy to get around. Santa Catalina borders the Playa de Armas on the west and San Francisco borders it on the east, and are the primary north-south streets.

Other Stuff: Book shops line San Francisco north of the Plaza, even an English book exchange (expensive) two blocks north of the Plaza. My favorite internet place is La Red Café Internet at Jerusalen 306, fast and only $.42 an hour, helpful staff.

Sights around Arequipa: These abound. The deepest canyon in the world (reputedly), Cotahuasi, is 12 hours on a terrible dirt road to which I can testify with personal experience but it includes incomparable scenery including a plateau of 12,000 to 15,000 feet that takes four hours to cross between two permanently snow-capped volcanoes, one of which is the second highest in Peru (Coropuna). Beware, however, that many people suffer sorroche, high altitude sickness, within a few hours of habitation above 12,000 or 13,000 feet. The result is headaches and nausea making migraines look puny. Acclimatization for a few days at every two or three thousand feet above your limit will avoid sorroche, plus there are inexpensive pills to combat sorroche that are available in every Peruvian pharmacy. The second deepest canyon in the world, Colca, is a major tourist attraction only four hours north of Arequipa at Chivay. The town's hot springs (three separate pools) will run you $3. In the Colca Canyon proper Andean Condors glide the canyon walls and you can trek down for practically nada. These two "world's deepest canyons" are, however, disappointing in that they don't look like canyons but like a steep series of descents with the only narrowness found in the river bottom that might at some points exceed a thousand vertical feet. Thus you may want instead to climb a volcano: Misti at 5800 meters is among the easiest of its height in the world to climb, only two days to scale its 19,000+ feet.

Shopping: Inexpensive baby alpaca sweaters, knitted goods, naturally colored cottons, handicrafts, hats and lots more.

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