Walking the Streets of the Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa, Peru
You read the title right; the Santa Catalina Monastery has streets! It’s more like a small town than a religious complex — there’s a cafe, lots of small houses and even a park. We took a few hours to explore the Santa Catalina Monastery during our stay in Arequipa, Peru. This is what we saw.
Streets lined with tiny houses
I had no idea what to expect when we walked through the gates of the Santa Catalina Monastery. After walking through a couple of sunny courtyards we came to a street scene you might expect to see in a medina in Morocco or a small town in Europe. The narrow streets are lined with potted flowers, which sit in front of blue, white and orange/red houses. From some streets you can see the imposing snow capped mountains and volcanoes that watch over Arequipa. You’d be lucky to find a quainter and more picturesque small “town” anywhere in the world, but the fact that no one calls this part of the Santa Catalina Monastery home anymore makes it more of a museum.
Inside the houses
Up to 150 nuns at a time called the Santa Catalina Monastery home at its peak. They were joined by servants who cooked and cleaned. You can walk around their small houses and see where all the action happened (well, they were nuns so I’m sure it was nothing scandalous). The houses look like they’ve been left the way they were — with tiny beds, stone kitchens and small outdoor areas. The nuns are now long gone (well, they now live in a separate, non-touristy part of the monastery), so you don’t have to feel too guilty about creeping around old women’s houses. There are also some larger rooms, halls and chapels, some of which feature religious paintings and figures.
History of Santa Catalina Monastery
The monastery was built in 1579 and, at its peak, housed around 450 people. I was surprised to learn that a lot of the nuns that lived there were actually the daughters of rich Spanish families. These families paid huge sums of money to have their daughter live at the monastery. How annoying would that be!? You’re lucky enough to be born into a rich family and they make you go and live in a small house inside a monastery. I guess the saying is true; money doesn’t always bring you happiness. The Santa Catalina Monastery was damaged by two earthquakes in the 1960s, so they built new houses for the nuns and turned the old monastery into a tourist attraction.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is in the centre of Arequipa and is definitely the one “must see” attraction in the city. It costs 40 soles to enter, which I thought was pretty expensive at the time, but then I realised this was no ordinary monastery. It’s well worth the money, I’d even consider paying again to go on a night tour (you can only do this on Tuesdays and Thursdays). I’ve seen a lot of Christian buildings and complexes throughout the world and this is easily one of the best; don’t miss it if you’re ever in Arequipa.
Have you been to any unique monasteries? Let me know!