Santa Catalina Monastery - Arequipa, Peru

Santa Catalina Monastery is an enormous 215,000 square feet convent that has been operated by nuns continuously for the past four centuries. It is a must see in Arequipa, especially if you are a history or a religion buff. Located in Arequipa Downtown, it gives a unique history of the City's religious aspect. Most of the walls, furniture and machines are original and have been maintained carefully for centuries, although some restoration work has been done. Since it is operated by nuns and not by pastors, it should technically been called a "Convent". However, the name Santa Catalina Monastery has stuck throughout Arequipa's history.

Entry Fee & Hours:

Regular Schedule: From 9:00 A.M to 5:00 P.M
High Season: From 8:00 A.M to 5:00 P.M
Tuesday to Thursday: From 8:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M.

Tip: Be sure to call before you go, sometimes the monastery may be closed for religious ceremonies.

Phone: 51-54-221213
Fax: 054-281335

Entrance Fee: 35 Peruvian Soles or 12 US Dollars

Guided Tour: After you enter, ask for a guide. you will most probably be able to hire one for about 10 Dollars.


The monastery was founded by  Doña María de Guzmán, a rich widow who put all of her fortune into this monastery. The monastery was officially opened in 1580, where Doña María de Guzmán was the first official inhabitant.  The families had to pay a hefty dowry to get their daughter's admittance. However in a few years, a massive earthquake struck Arequipa, leaving the monastery in shambles, forcing the nuns to repair the building themselves as there was no money. The monastery was forced to let the nuns' families rebuild, who built lavish comfortable homes for their daughters. The families used this opportunity, to even employ maids to make their daughter's life easier. During the course of the over the next 400 years, the monastery has had umpteen number of changes, conflicts and struggles.


The design of the building is predominantly colonial, however the natives added their own flavor of building style. Sillar (porous volcanic rock), is the primary building material used.The buildings are separated by streets, named after the cities of Spain. The streets are paved, and have channels on the sides for the rainy season. There are 81 individual houses in the monastery.

Monastery is divided into many segments. They are:

The Entrance: This is a very modest entrance for such a large building, with no paintings or carvings. On top, you will see a small relief of Sr. Catherine Of Siena, who helped in founding the monastery. All the blocks are made of volcanic rock (sillar) native to Peru. As you enter, you will see the ticket counter and the security guard.

Above: Mortuary room of Santa Catalina Monastery
The Mortuary Room: The mortuary room was used to keep a nun who just passed away and  is awaiting burial. It has a simple wooden casket. This room is full of portraits of expired nuns. The local painters would be invited right after a nun passes away. During the first few centuries, the families were not allowed to see or attend the funeral ceremonies of their daughters. However, this rule has been relaxed in the past century or so.

Cloister Of The Orange Trees: This is an open area adorned with orange trees, which symbolize eternal life. In the middle of the Orange Tree Cloister, there are three crosses which are used for religious ceremonies. Every Good Friday, the nuns re-enact the Passion Of Christ here. However, visitors are not allowed to see this event, and the convent is closed for visitors on that day.

Above: The kitchen still has the original stoves and utensils.
Kitchen: The kitchen and utensils have been untouched and you can literally look into the past here. The utensils are black and have gone through many hardships, as wood and coal were the primary sources of fuel. The walls and the ceiling are covered with soot. The antique stoves and the crude chimney are also quite exciting to watch. However, some rich families gave their daughters machines to make flour to make their life easier.
Above: A Flour machine used by nuns to make holy bread
Main Cloister: This is the largest cloister (A covered walk way) in the convent,  built around 1720. It is has five private confessionals on the left.  32 religious paintings adorn the cloister, which were used as learning material by the novices. 9 paintings show the life of Jesus and the remaining 23 are dedicated to Mary's life.

Above: The laundry Area used half jars as washing tubs
Laundry: Built in 1770, it has 20 large earthen jars which are broken in half. The jars look like huge storage containers and must have been used to store rice or wine. The jars are all connected to the aqueduct of Arequipa. Simple corks were used to fill and empty these jars with water, to wash clothes. At the bottom is the connection to the underground canal, which empties the dirty water in Arequipa river. Some rich families gave laundry machines to their daughters, which you can see below.

Above: A laundry machine used by one of the rich nuns
Individual Houses Of Nuns: It was pretty exciting to take a look inside the houses of nuns as the rich families built large bedrooms, gardens and put "modern day" amenities like washing machine and flour machines.
Above: A bed used by nuns
The comfortable bedroom even had furniture and remember, they even had maids. It must have been quite a lifestyle to be a nun in those days.
Above: Furniture collection inside the house of a nun
Church Of Santa Catalina: The very first construction of the church dates back to 1660, and it has been rebuilt several times because of earthquakes. Embossed silver is used in the main altar and shows exquisite carvings on the religious motifs. On the sides are small private confession rooms used by nuns. An old metal grill is still in place separating the church and the low choir, where the nuns would be during the sacred mass. This would keep the nuns separated from the rest of the world. On top is the high choir, where you can find an old musical organ which probably came from Spain.

Above: A fountain at the trading area of the nuns

Zocodover Square: Named after the Zocodover market square in Toledo, Spain. The root of the word comes from Arabic 'souq ad-dawab ' meaning cattle market. Since the nuns never went out of the monastery, they created their own little trading market here. Every Sunday, the nuns gathered here, and traded items that they made or received from their families. It was also a place to show off the gifts they received from their families. 

Belfry Tower: The tower has four bells on each street that are adjacent to the convent.It was built in 1748 by the city council of Arequipa.

Above: A street inside the Santa Catalina Monastery
Streets: Well paved streets separate the enormous array of homes inside the monastery. The most important streets are Cordova, Sevilla and Burgos. The streets were named after cities of Spain. These streets connect the important segments like the Kitchen, Church and Laundry area.

Think you have the patience of a nun? Watch the 25 minute tour inside Santa Catalina Convent: 

Interesting facts:
  • The nuns are still cloister nuns, meaning that they don't see outsiders. At the moment, the oldest nun in the monastery is 100 years old and a there are a total of 20 nuns.
  • Walls are painted with natural pigments, a tradition that is still followed, and they are repainted every year after the rainy season. Be careful not to lean on walls, as the pigments do stick to your clothes.
  • In olden days, the second child of a family was raised to become a priest or a nun. He / She was expected to pray for the family and their well being. Imagine being born as a second child in Arequipa in 1600s. What would you do?

Above: A portrait of Ana de los Angeles Montegudo
  • Ana de los Angeles Montegudo is the most famous nun who lived and died in the 1600s. She is said to have performed many miracles and is deified in the monastery.
  • Initially ,the nuns enjoyed a luxurious life in the lavish homes built by their parents. However, the pope found out about this, and forbade them to continue this lifestyle. They were forced to sleep, eat and live as regular nuns thereafter.
  • Unlike the Machu Picchu or the Nazca lines, this is one of the very few attractions which are not native to Peruvians. After the Spanish conquistadors took over Peru, they started building churches over existing Inca structures. Most, if not all Peruvians are now Christians and old Inca religious practices are almost forgotten.


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After reading your post, you can see once again how ascetical the monks live, and in the past centuries it was even more difficult.

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