Monasterio de Santa Catalina: Photographer’s Gem in Arequipa, Peru
Peru is without a doubt a photographers dream with enough vibrant culture, history, and dramatic landscapes to occupy your every waking minute. And don’t even get me started on the cuisine. Peru is one of the best countries in the world for food!
But fewer places offer the kind of incredible photographic opportunities with less tourists than a visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery, more commonly called the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, in the White City of Arequipa, Peru.
With its centuries-old cathedrals, Baroque architecture, archeological museums, great restaurants, and lively culture, Arequipa has so much to offer visitors. It's close to the coast with a lower elevation than the Sacred Valley, so there's not much acclimatization needed.
One of the must-see attractions in the city - and one of the most popular things to do in Arequipa with photographers - is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
Arequipa, The White City of Peru
Located 1,000 km and 15 hours by bus or car south of Lima and 5 hours west of Puno and Lake Titicaca, it's not exactly easy to get to unless you fly — but Arequipa is so worth adding to your Peru itinerary.
Arequipa is such a beautiful and walkable colonial city in southern Peru. Known as the 'White City", it is often overlooked by visitors on their Peru trip because of its somewhat remote location away from the more popular tourist hot spots like the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca. Though most of the city is constructed from white volcanic stone known as sillar, it's quite a colorful place.
The Monasterio de Santa Catalina
The famous 16th century Santa Catalina Monastery, also known as the Convento de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Convent, 1579), encompasses an entire city block and is truly a photographer's paradise. Established as a private monastery of Nuns of the Order of Saint Catherine of Siena, visiting the place today almost feels as if you’re trespassing. The interior is remarkably austere yet feels lived in, as if the nuns will reappear at any moment.
In the 16th century, the second born son or daughter of a family would enter a life of service in the Church, and the Monastery accepted only women from upper class families.
Families paid the Monastery a dowry - as much as 2,400 silver coins for daughters to enter as black-and-white nuns (about $150,000 in today's value)!
The women were required to bring certain items with them including a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. The wealthiest nuns also brought fine English china, rugs, paintings, and other opulent items. These items are still on display today in the Monastery’s art gallery.
Early in its history, nuns at the Monastery had a very high standard of living and lived well. Each nun typically had 4-5 servants to tend to their needs. But in 1871, the Pope demanded their excessive living stop, and life went back to a quieter existence.
The lavish lifestyle, paintings, and wealthy dowries went back to Europe, and the servants and slaves were freed. Many were allowed to stay at the Monastery as nuns.
The Monastery was opened to the public in 1970 after 400 years in operation. Most everything looks intact, as if little time has passed - the individual "cells" or Nuns quarters, cucinas (kitchens), chapels, laundry, baños (bathrooms), everything.
Visitors can still admire the priceless paintings and works of art in the chapels and art galleries.
Today, there are still nuns who live and work in the Convent, in an area off-limits to the public, however the majority of the Convent and grounds are open to tourists. Entrance fees and Gift Shop revenue helps support the activities and maintenance of the Convent.
The Monastery is a feast for the eyes, with its bright orange and cobalt blue colors, sculpted archways and windows, and courtyards in bloom around every turn. Plan on spending several hours touring and lingering - more if you take lots of photographs. There is a small restaurant on premises for tasty, light lunches, and a Gift Shop as well.
How to Get to Arequipa
Arequipa is a bit harder to get to than the Sacred Valley, but with more visitors hiking the mountains and valleys of the Colca Canyon and the desert area around the Nazca lines, it’s not without other tourists. But you’ll definitely find more adventure travelers in this part of Peru. The Colca Canyon is four times the size of the Grand Canyon in the western United States, and quite impressive.
Arequipa sits in the shadow of one of Peru’s active and perfect cone-shaped volcanos, and hiking El Misti is one of the most popular things to do in Arequipa for adventure travelers. It has an elevation of over 19,000 feet!
The easiest way to get here is to fly from Lima to Arequipa. (From here, it's also an easy flight from Arequipa to Cusco - or vice versa - to visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu). But if you don't mind the 5-hour ride (time to sleep or relax), a more scenic route at a fraction of the cost of flying is the first class bus from Puno to Arequipa, through the Colca Canyon.
We took the Cruz del Sur first class bus, an efficient bus service with routes throughout Peru, and we highly recommend them.
Where to Stay in Arequipa
Casa Arequipa is a quaint and affordable boutique hotel centrally located just a few blocks from the historic city center and Plaza de Armas. It was so convenient and we walked almost everywhere. Check rates and more details.
La Plaza Arequipa
Another great place right on the Plaza de Armas (don't worry, it's not noisy and it's great for people watching) is La Plaza Arequipa, another boutique hotel with a perfect price tag under $100 and a million dollar view! Check more details and availability.
Check out more hotels in Arequipa:
IF YOU GO
Santa Catalina Monastery - Santa Catalina 301, Arequipa, Peru
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday until 8:00 PM
Wear comfy and flexible shoes, as the 'streets' within the Monastery are uneven.
Bring extra camera batteries and memory cards - I filled an entire 2G card here alone!
Are you planning a trip to Arequipa or Peru? There are so many sites to see. Which ones are on your list?