Advantages Intriguing past, beautiful interiors, peaceful atmosphere
Disadvantages The history that made it possible
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
The convent of Santa Catalina doesn't look much from the outside. Its long outer wall blanks off one side of an otherwise busy street near Arequipa's central square. Arequipa is known as the "white city" because much of it is built of sillar, the local white volcanic stone, but time has stained the convent's porous sillar exterior a dingy grey. The effect is not so much forbidding as simply unappealing, unwelcoming.Still, as Arequipa's main tourist attraction, the convent was one of the reasons for our having diverted to the city on our way up to the Inca remains in the Andes, so we waited for a lull in the predatory onrush of taxis, crossed the road to the entrance and went in. Everything became quiet. Once within the walls, the visitor finds their occlusive bulk keeps the city's bustle at bay and all seems calm and peaceful. Which is, I suppose, rather the point of such a place.
* History *
Founded by the widow of a leading Spanish/Peruvian notable, the convent was richly endowed from the outset, and attracted women from a wealthy background. At the time it was customary for one son or daughter of a noble family to enter religious service, and such novitiates brought a dowry with them, and came expecting a cossetted lifestyle. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh were not on their agenda; they were accompanied by their own servants, enjoyed comfortable surroundings and ate and drank well. They were expected to attend at least fifteen masses a year, but, if you had to live in a single-sex, religious institution, life there seems to have been remarkably agreeable.The convent rapidly grew in prestige and patronage, until its walls enclosed two hectares (five acres) and housed over 400 nuns together with their retinues. As the centuries rolled by, it had its ups and downs - physical, financial and spiritual. Several times it had to be repaired or even rebuilt following earthquakes. In 1871 the Vatican got wind of the fact that the set-up at Santa Catalina was more social than sacred, and sent a Dominican zealot, Sister Josefa Cadena by name, to restore it to the path of righteousness by sacking the servants, remitting the dowries to Rome, ripping out the silk and lace, and imposing a regime of strict austerity.
This shake-up did far more damage than the earthquakes. The nuns' numbers dwindled and funds ran short. In 1970, unable to afford to install electricity and running water as civic ordinances required, the remaining community withdrew to one small section of the convent, and opened the rest to paying visitors. Nearly all of the older and more interesting buildings can now be seen.
Within the walls, the convent is a maze of cloisters, plazas, passages and alleys. To find one's way around, it is essential to have a plan of the layout.Nearly all the buildings are single-storey, presumably as a safeguard against earthquakes. Despite this, the sense of being enclosed is complete, and only where one can mount staircases to rooftops does outside world impinge, with the local volcano, Mt Misti, looming over the surrounding city.
Apart from the hefty blocks of sillar, the main building materials are adobe and ashlar, petrified volcanic ash. These are painted in vivid colours - cobalt blue, rich orangey and pinkish ochres - which glow in the sunlight. Deep in Peru's arid south, Arequipa receives hardly any rainfall, though it is high enough for the climate to be temperate. The cloisters provide welcome shade, with scarlet geraniums and yellow cytisus adding further colour, foliage and scent. And fountains a refreshing splash of sound.
We found that much of the pleasure of the place consisted simply of wandering round absorbing the atmosphere, and poking into the chambers where the nuns lived - often to all intents and purposes apartments with their own kitchens and facilities - trying to envisage what their lives were like. But there are some notable features:~ The church, unsurprisingly in a convent, though it is divided into two halves separated by a screen: one for the public accessible from the outside, one for the nuns. There is an impressively ornate silver altar.
~ Main Cloister, around a rather bare square, decked out with confession boxes and religious paintings.~ Orange Tree Cloister, with the eponymous trees growing from boxes, small but charming and with some fine frescos under the arches….
~ ….as there are also in the Novices' Cloister, which is darker and more sombre. Here and around the adjacent Courtyard of Silence are the cells in which new entrants spent their first year before formal induction into nunhood.~ The original church of St Catherine, which was superseded by the current church and converted into communal kitchens. An antique stove and cooking implements are on display.
~ An open-air laundry, with carefully-crafted water channels supplying earthenware wash tubs.~ A long cruciform former dormitory, now converted into an art gallery and recital room. The paintings on display are predominantly religious and include some good examples of the "Cusco School" that mingles European and Inca styles.
The Santa Catalina Convent is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., though you cannot enter after 4 p.m. Entry costs 30 Nuevos Soles (£5), rather than the 25 still shown on the official website (okay, it's less than a pound's worth of difference but they ought to get it right).
* Opening, refreshments and services *
This fee also entitles you to a "free gift" that can be claimed at the Casona de Santa Catalina shopping centre across the street. Our free gifts turned out to be little souvenir pottery plaques, quite tasteful in themselves. If it seems a bit tacky for a religious institution to associate itself with such an obvious ploy to lure you into the shops, one only needs to reflect on the sale of indulgences and saints' relics in the middle ages to appreciate that it is simply continuing a time-honoured tradition.Within the convent, there is a pleasant cafeteria where we enjoyed a modestly-priced coca tea and delicious orange cake. This cafeteria is not to be confused with the adjacent Monasterio Restaurant, which can be entered directly from the street, stays open until late in the evening and in which we ate an excellent dinner.
The toilets are clean and adequate. So far as I could see, there are no special facilities for the disabled.
The city of Arequipa is a bit of an oddity. Isolated in the midst of mountainous desert, it owes its existence to the narrow fertile valley of the Chili River in which it sits. The Arequipeños are proud and independent-spirited, having more than once threatened to secede from the rest of Peru, though they now seem to be content to have their city recognised as "The Capital of the South".Although the surrounding desert looks uninviting at first, outings can be arranged to such sights as the Colca Canyon, which at 3400m is considerably deeper than the Grand Canyon in the States.
With about a million inhabitants, the modern city sprawls, but the old centre is remarkably compact and architecturally attractive. The plaza major is splendid, shaded by palms and fringed on one side by the Cathedral, on the other three by two-storey arcades, the upper storey consisting almost entirely of cafés, where one can sit and watch the city life go by. There are numerous Spanish colonial residences built around patios in traditional Andalucian style. And, of course, any number of lavishly decorated churches in addition to that of the convent itself.
An irreligious but culturally-interested tourist goes round Latin America with very mixed feelings.Most fascinating are the pre-Columbian relics, but not many of them have survived. The Spanish conquistadores were intent on plunder, not on preservation, while the priests who accompanied them like commissars did their utmost to eradicate all traces of the original "pagan" cultures. Admittedly, the pre-Columbian religions - insofar as one can discern what they were actually about from the post-conquest black propaganda of the victors - do not sound very enlightened. With features like human sacrifice they may well have been almost as barbarous as the heretic-burning Catholicism of the Inquisition that replaced them.
As a result of this rapacity and theologically-inspired vandalism, what we are mostly left with is the art and architecture of the conquerors, and the best examples are religious in their provenance. Astoundingly ornate churches like that of San Francisco in Lima or the cathedral at Cusco, although less ancient, compare with the best that Europe has to offer. They are not just beautiful in themselves but house some the best collections of art in the region. Of course, the gold and silver that encrust the intricate decoration of their altar-pieces were stolen from the Incas, and paid for with the blood of Peru's original inhabitants, but are none the less impressive for that. Was it worth it, though, one wonders.And similarly, as one treads softly around the cloisters and courtyards of the Santa Catalina convent, reflecting on the languorous lives led by its original high-born inmates, the daughters and grand-daughters of the adventurers who seized Peru by treachery and force of arms, one ponders the price paid for such peacefulness.
If you're planning a visit to Cusco, Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca, is the Santa Catalina convent worth diverting for? Yes, in my view, especially with the other sights of Arequipa and its area. Staying a day or two at Arequipa's altitude also helps you acclimatise for the more dizzying heights you will experience further up the Andes. But above all it gives you a different flavour from that of rest of Peru, and helps to set what you will see of the Inca relics in their context.
* Recommendation *
© torr 2008
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