One of the biggest architectural and historical sites in Arequipa is the Santa Catalina Monastery or Monasteria de Santa Catalina. It is a cloistered convent which means that the nuns who enter cannot see their family or friends again as they take a vow of seclusion. The monastery itself was built in 1579, less than 40 years after the Spanish arrived in Arequipa. It is a large sprawling complex of complicated avenues and hidden cloisters, there are stairs that lead to small upper rooms and hidden gardens and nooks and crannies everywhere. The full monastery measures 20 000 square metres and is unique in the sense that it has vividly painted walls and fresco paintings in the arches.
The Monastery is interesting in that the woman who founded the monastery was a rich widow and required the nuns who wanted to enter the monastery to pay a dowry of the equivalent today of US$ 50 000.00. A handsome sum in anyones books. The nuns who entered the monastery had up to 4 slaves working for them and lavish parties and musical entertainment were quite normal. In 1871, Pope Pius IX sent a Dominican nun to reform the monastery and the dowries were sent back to Europe and the slaves were freed. Apparently at one time, the monastery housed about 450 nuns, but today there are only 20 nuns on the premises.
The monastery is magnificent both architecturally and design wise. It is a haven in the midst of a large and encroaching city. When we were in the monastery it felt as it we had stepped back in time. The walls are very high because of the vows of seclusion that were taken, so no contact with the outside world is allowed. This adds to the sense of seclusion and solitude, even the city sounds are blocked out and it was a really peaceful and restful time.