Get thee to a Nunnery – Arequipa

Day 4.

I have the morning to myself and return to the main square, to find the buildings are white in daylight. People are sunning themselves on the benches as the temperature rises. At 2,335 metres above sea level, the temperature drops at night. I return to La Compania De San Ignacio Cloisters, just off the square to explore.

San Ignatio

Church is open, so I divert. It’s gloomy and I get about five metres in the door and turn around. The Cloisters are light grey, almost white and are deserted. The artist stalls Richard mentioned last night have all gone. Apparently many things have not returned after COVID, all that remains here are a couple of Alpaca shops and a few cafés, which are not yet open. I climb up stairs to a walkway overlooking the cloister – it is beautiful and calm looking down.


I wander back to the square looking for a bench in the shade of a tree, but none are vacant, so it’s on to the balcony where all the coffee places are. I order a cappuccino and chose a seat looking out on the Square, get out my laptop and begin to write. When the cappuccino comes it is dreadful and I soon order agua con gas to clear my palette. Suddenly, I hear my name, Richard and another are three cafés along to my right and four others from our group are two cafés to my left.

Political rally

Some time later my concentration is broken by drumming and lout hailing. I suspect another demonstration. It is, but in favour of a local mayoral candidate. It’s time to pack up and return to the ice-cream place opposite San Ignacio. It’s only mid-day and an ice-cream alone won’t sustain me through the afternoon so I start with a ham and cheese empanada. It is all puffed up – filled with air – a thin layer of cheese is melted into bits of ham. These are not as I remembered in Argentina a few years ago. The traditional Peruvian Ice Cream, Queso Helado, is unusual and delicious.

The afternoon is devoted to the Monastery of Santa Catalina, an order of Dominican nuns established in the sixteenth century. Our guide speaks good English but is initially a bit brisk , but warms up when we start asking questions. She is grateful to be back at work after COVID as during the pandemic there were no tourists. Peru was particularly badly hit initially, one guide claimed they were the worst in the world and even now masks are mandatory and a majority still wear them.

The nunnery is like a large village and covers between five and seven acres. It was a closed order with no contact to the outside world and there remain sixteen nuns in a modern closed of area of the compound. There is s video of them happily cooking, sewing, praying, singing and playing musical instruments. The products from their cooking are on sale.

From the 16th century, the second daughter of every wealthy family went into the monastery, there was no choice. If the second daughters were twins, they went in as well. Families paid large amounts of money plus gifts of carpets and art works for the privilege of having a family member serving God. Most of their time was spent praying but they were forbidden to read the Bible as that might have led them to question the Catholic doctrine. That makes sense to me as my interpretation of the New Testament as a child and teenager, was that Jesus was a socialist.

Nun’s House
One of many kitchens

The nuns lived in ‘houses’ which were little more than one room, even the Mother Superior lived in one room, albeit a larger room. Kitchens were attached – there are kitchens everywhere – and lower class nuns, those from poor families, did the work for the upper class nuns – cooking, washing and so on. You can see why they were denied access to the bible.







The 16th century was not a safe time for girls and young women as those who married had to work hard, were usually abused by husbands and often died in childbirth. Only the eldest son inherited for the father – the other sons would go to be soldiers.

Our guide painted a grim picture of the lack of choice for young people. The colours painted on the walls look stunning and may have been similar in the 16th century and may have helped to foster a sense of safety.

The Laundry


Small revolving doors allowed messages to be sent out to families and presents to be given to the Monastery. Often these presents were abandoned babies, who were adopted by the nuns. The girl, were brought up to be nuns while the boys left when they were about 8 -10.


Many of us are experiencing fuzzy heads as a result of the high altitude.  Paracetamol and keeping hydrated is the key.  After dinner and walking back to the hotel, the pedestrian streets are alive with sellers. Their wares are displayed on mats which can be easily collected up in a bundle and removed if the police sirens are heard. One of our party comes across a book-seller and is intrigued. The man says he is not Peruvian but Arequipian – a bit of regional pride doing on?

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