Monasterio de Santa Catalina – Arequipa, Peru
An Island of Serenity in Peru’s White City
Much of colonial Arequipa – known as La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) for its elaborate 16th- and 17th-century Spanish homes – is hidden behind imposing walls. Nothing prepares the wanderer who stumbles upon this lovely city’s greatest secret, the cloistered world of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a miniature city within a city that was opened to the public only in 1970. The few elderly Dominican nuns still living there have moved to the northern corner of the convent, but the rest of the grounds may be visited. For centuries this quiet, self-contained community was home to well-to-do women who never left the premises, as the cemetery will testify.
Covering an entire city block, the original convent was built in 1580 and soon gained a reputation as a sort of exclusive club, where young girls of aristocratic families arrived for an education, a safe haven, or a spiritual vocation (some with maids, slaves, large dowries, and fancy lifestyles to maintain). Of the maximum 450 women living there, only a third were actually nuns until the late 1800s, when circumstances redirected life back to the religious. Today, as you meander through the convent’s twisting streets, admire pastel- painted buildings, stop in the tiny plazas, and visit the simple living quarters, you are taken back to an earlier, more refined age.