As we have mentioned in previous posts, Arequipa comprehends the most visually striking colonial scenery of the entire country, with beautiful neo-renaissance buildings and cobbled stone streets. Likewise, it also holds a precious gem hidden in plain sight right at the heart of the city center, here we’ll tell you all about it.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is the largest colonial construction in Peru, the site covers an extension of 20,000 square meters, a city within a city that was perfectly isolated from the busy Arequipa in spite of being situated in such a central location.
The religious complex housed over 300 women since the 18th century, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the convent finally opened to the public, unveiling the astonishing colonial architectural style that was hidden for about 390 years.
Nowadays, it remains as a paid tourist attraction and it’s one of the most in-demand places to visit in the White City of Arequipa. For that reason, we have decided to write an entire section dedicated to this famous sanctuary, where history and culture has prevailed until the current date.
Walking through its narrow and colorful halls will take you on a back in time journey across the instagram-worthy monastery. Continue reading and learn everything about the majestic Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
The Santa Catalina Monastery was founded by the Viceroy Francisco Toledo in 1579 along with a rich devoted woman called Doña María de Guzmán, a widow who gave up all her assets to recruit herself in the monastery.
Doña María de Guzmán was the first inhabitant of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina and it wasn’t until october 1580 that she was recognized as a founder of the convent. Likewise, many other women listed themselves in the monastery, a population that grew consistently by the XVIII century.
Over 300 devoted women lived in these facilities completely isolated from the outside world. The women who entered the monastery as nuns were creoles, mestizos belonging to wealthy families. Also, the story tells of the entry of the so-called "poor nuns" who, without having money to pay a dowry, entered to exercise their virtues.
The Santa Catalina Monastery was a mystery to the rest of the city, since it’s towering 4-meter walls kept its secrets well-hidden to outsiders. However, it wasn’t until 1970 that the convent opened its doors to the public, making it a live museum, though a small group of nuns still live in the northern area of the complex.
As we mentioned earlier in the post, the architectural style of the complex is incomparable. The monastery is one of the perfect examplaries of the use of ashlar in colonial architecture since it is almost entirely built with this material.
For those who didn’t know, the sillar -or ashlar in English- is a volcanic rock found in the quarries of the nearby volcanoes. Unlike the other structures in Arequipa’s old town, the Santa Catalina Monastery was built with white ashlar from the Chachani volcano and pink ashlar from the southern volcano, Misti.
The convent is composed of several narrow halls painted of bright yellow, blue and red colors, as well as picturesque courtyards complemented with fortress-like walls. The complex itself is a masterpiece of colonial architecture, a work of art preserved for centuries.
However, the structure has been struck by earthquakes many times, even in the beginning of its construction, however, the most damaged parts were rebuilt and some of them have remained intact ever since.
Before its opening to the public, the Santa Catalina Monastery was restored to highlight the colonial authenticity of the place, maintaining its original characteristics. The religious complex is composed of narrow streets, courtyards, flower gardens, dorms, living rooms and more.
We have listed some of the most important facilities of the place on this section:
- Monastery Entrance: The entrance door is adorned with a relief of Santa Catalina de Siena, carved into the solid ashlar wall that borders the entire block.
- The Silence Courtyard: It was a special place where the nuns used to gather to pray the holy rosary and read the bible in complete silence.
- Cloister of the Orange Trees: The place owes its name to the orange trees that grew here. It is composed of three crosses located in the middle of the cloister, where the nuns represent the Passion of Christ every Good Friday.
- Major Cloister: It is the largest courtyard in the monastery, built between 1715 and 1723. The place is adorned with beautiful paintings related to the preparation, teaching and catechization of the nuns. There are 23 paintings in reference to Virgin Mary’s life and 9 related to the public life of Jesus.
- Kitchen: It is one of the oldest kitchens in the monastery, which according to historians could have been destined to be a chapel.
- Bell Tower: The distinguished tower was built in 1748, it is composed of four bells located in front of the streets that surround the monastery.
- Church: It is a beautiful and old church with a long nave and a half-orange dome, which has a basic construction distinctive of the 1660s.
The Santa Catalina Monastery is located in Arequipa’s Historical City Center, a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas. The site remains a paid tourist attraction and attracts thousands of visitors per year.
We highly recommend visiting the monastery on a guided tour so you don’t miss any important details of this colonial gem. If you wish to know the old town of Arequipa at its fullest, we have the perfect tour for you!
Our Arequipa City Tour takes you through the most visually striking colonial scenery of Peru, while visiting the most sought after attractions on the way. Include this excursion in your travel itinerary and start exploring the city like a local expert! Contact our travel specialists for more information.
Arequipa is a region full of natural wonders, history and culture, which is why we'd love to show you everything about it. If you would like to know more about the famous White City, here you have a blog about the top things to do in Arequipa.
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