After 4 weeks of traveling together, it was time for the "Jungle Janes" to say adios and go their separate ways. Tracy lingered in Cusco with Juan for a few days before traveling to Lima for her return flight to the USA. I planned to cross the border and travel through northern Chile. I decided, however, to stop in Arequipa for a few days, a good midpoint destination, and a place I had visited last year and vowed to return to if given the chance.
There are beautiful colonial buildings and churches scattered throughout Arequipa and, of the huge number of religious buildings spread around the old colonial center, the Monastery of Santa Catalina is considered the most outstanding and beautiful. Quite honestly, a tour through this Monastery (which I had missed last time) was one of my main reasons for returning to Arequipa.
"El Monasterio de Santa Catalina" was, and probably still is, the most important and prestigious religious building in Peru. It officially opened in 1579 and was mostly funded by a wealthy widow who later entered the convent with one of her sisters and donated all her riches to the community. (What do you think sisters, sound like fun?)
The monastery covers a complete city block. At one time its tall protective walls housed almost 200 secluded nuns and 300 servants until it opened some of its doors to the public in 1970. Hmmm, wait a minute, more servants than nuns ... apparently it's okay to give up all your worldly possessions but what nun would be caught in a place like this without her entourage of servants? Anyway, around 30 nuns still live in the monastery today, but they're restricted to a private quarter and only worship in the main chapel outside of public opening hours.
The monastery is an enormous complex of rooms, mural-covered cloisters, flower gardens, and tiny sunlit plazas all connected by a labyrinth of narrow interior streets. The architecture is of unique Spanish/Moorish design and features striking shades of terracotta and blue, something of a rarity in other monasteries I've visited and something I absolutely loved.
I spent hours wandering through the monastery, basking in the tranquility and beauty within. It was a quick but definitely worthwhile return visit to Arequipa.