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Santa Catalina Monastery - Arequipa, Peru

Walled city within a city


Santa Catalina Monastery street

Street within Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa, Peru


Enter the gates into the adobe brick walled community of the Santa Catalina de Siena Monastery in Arequipa, Peru and step back 400 years in time.

A must-see in the White City of Arequipa, Santa Catalina Monastery was begun in 1579/1580, forty years after the city was founded. The monastery was enlarged over the centuries until it became a city within the city, about 20000 sq./m. and covering a good sized city block. At one time, 450 nuns and their lay servants resided within the community, closed off from the city by high walls.

In 1970, when the civic authorities insisted the monastery install electricity and running water, the now poor community of nuns elected to open the greater portion of the monastery to the public in order to pay for the work. The few remaining nuns retreated to a corner of their community and the remainder became one of Arequipa’s prime tourist attractions.

Built with sillar, the white volcanic rock that gives Arequipa the name of the White City, and ashlar, petrified volcanic ash from Volcan Chachani overlooking the city, the monastery was closed off to the city, but much of it is open to the intensely blue sky over the southern Peruvian desert.

As you tour the monastery, you’ll walk down narrow streets named for Spanish locales, pass through arched colonnades surrounding courtyards, some with fountains, flowering plants and trees. You’ll linger in churches and chapels and take a rest in one of the plazas. You’ll see the interior, look into the private rooms, each with a small patio, common areas like the colonnades, and the utilitarian areas such as kitchen, laundry and outdoor drying area. Click on a circle on this map of the layout of the monastery for details.


  • Cloister of the Oranges – Claustro los Naranjos The three crosses set among the orange trees are the center of the Passion of the Christ ceremonies when the monastery is closed to visitors.
  • Silence Yard - Nuns walked, said the rosary and read the Bible in silence
  • Entrance Portico - Statue of St Catherine of Siena in sillar over arched doorway
  • Main Cloister - Largest in monastery with confessionals and paintings depicting the life of Mary and the public life of Jesus
  • Church - Rebuilt several times after earthquake damage according to original design. Silver worked altar dedicated to Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo (see next page). A metal grille separates the nun’s area from the public.
  • Cordova Street - Beautiful street reminiscent of Spain with hanging geraniums on one side. Newer architecture on opposite side houses new quarters for the nuns.
  • Plaza Zocodover - Named for Arab word for barter or exchange, this was the area where nuns gathered on Sundays to exchange or barter their religious crafts.
  • Sevilla Street - Originally led to first church of St Catherine which was later converted to the kitchens. Kitchen burned coal and wood, darkening the walls and ceilings. Original cooking utensils are on display.
  • Burgos Street - Connected vegetable garden to Sevilla Street and the kitchen.
  • Laundry Area - Big earthen storage vats served as wash tubs when canals provided Arequipa’s water supply.

    Everywhere you walk, you'll get a feel for what life must have been like for the women who lived here in secusion, to spend their life in prayer and contemplation.

    Or so you'd think.

    The early town leaders wanted their own monastery of nuns. Viceroy Francisco Toledo approved their request and granted the license to found a private monastery for the nuns of the Order of Saint Catherine of Siena. The city of Arequipa set aside four plots of land for the monastery. Before it was completed, a wealthy young Doña María de Guzmán, the widow of Diego Hernández de Mendoza, decided to retire from the world and became the first resident of the monastery. In October, 1580, the city fathers named her the prioress and acknowledged her as the founder. With her fortune now the monastery’s, work continued and the monastery attracted a number of women as novices. Many of these women were criollas and daughters of curacas, Indian chieftains. Other women entered the monastery to live as lay persons apart from the world.

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