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.

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