Monday, May 19, 2008


On arrival in Arequipa's bus station we were met by the owner of our hostel - an organised, efficient and slightly paranoid Dutch woman. Mostly this was a welcome surprise. That is until she hailed a taxi for us and hopped in with us. Where was her car? How did she get here?
Apparently there had been a few cases of tourists taking unauthorised taxis only to be robbed or assaulted. She was here to ensure the taxi took us straight to our hostel. One look at her authoritarian disposition and no one would have messed with her! 
First order of the day was lunch. TZ went out on a mission to find sandwiches. This was indeed a mission. When a take away place calls itself vegetarian but then only serves hamburgers (yes with meat!), this naturally calls into question the veracity of everything else in the store.
So, after settling our stomachs with less than satisfactory food, we asked our Dutch hostess what there was to do in this town. She said, "get thee to a nunnery."
The 425 year old Convent of Santa Catalina is opulent and colourful. Two adjectives you would not normally use to describe a convent. Below you can see murals on the walls. As the women were illiterate, they had to learn their bible studies from pictures.
The convent was founded by a rich nun and only accepted members from high class Spanish families. At the time, if you were a second daughter then you were automatically sent to a convent. The girls who were lucky enough to come to Santa Catalina did not go kicking and screaming. They lived a lavish lifestyle with up to 4 servants. Most had their own rooms - and not the traditional Spartan style either. Many had beautiful paintings, statues and silk curtains.
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Apart from the unusually rich lifestyle led by the nuns, many unholy rumours started to emerge from the behind the cloister walls. Our guide hinted at the fact that some of the nuns were a little boy crazy insisting on a doctor coming to visit them for any minor ache. Some women were even found to be pregnant and no one bought the immaculate conception story. It was only a matter of time before reforms had to be introduced. In 1871 Pope Pius IX sent a strict nun to free the servants if they wished to go and move the women into communal rooms.
Below you can see some of the colourful and beautiful alleys.
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There was one place in the convent that nuns were not allowed to go. They were denied access to views of the outside world and so the rooftop was out of bounds. Only servants (and now tourists) could admire the city of Arequipa from up here.
Today there are around 20 nuns who live here. Although not living in the same style as their predecessors, they still reap the benefits of dwelling inside such a magnificent and highly decorated convent.
Below is the clothes washing area. A constant stream of clean water could be stopped and redirected into the basin as needed. 
Meet Juanita. She lives in a temperature controlled glass cabinet in Museo Santuarios Andinos. Juanita or the Ice Maiden as she is sometimes called, is an Incan mummy. At the age of 13 she embarked on a long and difficult journey up to the top of Ampato volcano accompanied by Incan priests. When she reached the top, she was intoxicated and given a sharp blow to her head. She was buried as a sacrifice to appease the gods. She lay buried under snow for 550 years and was discovered only 18 years ago. Of course taking photos of her is prohibited so here is one we found on the net.
When we weren't engrossed in fascinating history lessons, we caught up with friends we met in the Amazon. South America was much smaller than we thought. It was not the first time we bumped into fellow travellers again. John and Finola shared a million hectors of pristine Amazon with us and when we discovered they were also in Arequipa, we toasted a round of pisco sours to coincidences and more interesting travels stories...

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