The Nuns of Santa Teresa

The Santa Teresa convent in Cochabamba houses what remains of an order of cloistered Carmelite nuns. A strict Catholic order with a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary, the Carmelites are thought to have been founded in the 12th century on Mt Carmel (hence the name). The order believes strongly in the power of contemplative prayer and shuns the excesses of society.

Local families believed that a daughter in the convent guaranteed the entire family a place in heaven, hence there was strong pressure on the first daughter of every cochabambino family to enter into the convent. Such was the demand to get some real estate in heaven that there was even a waiting list set up when no vacancies were available. An elderly nun had to pass on before a new young nun was allowed in.

Life inside was tough, and a rigid class system operated. Those who paid a considerable dowry (equivalent to more than US$150,000 in modern money) earned themselves a velo negro (black veil) and a place on the council under the control of the Mother Superior. The council was responsible for all the decisions in the convent. As the elite members of the order, velos negros were blessed with a private stone room with a single window, where they spent most of their day in prayer, religious study and other acceptable activities such as sewing tapestries.

Each velo negro was attended by members of the velo blanco (white veil), second-class nuns whose family paid a dowry, but could not afford the full cost of a velo negro. Velo blanco nuns spent part of their day in prayer and the rest in the personal service of the velo negro. Daughters of poor families who could not afford any kind of dowry became sin velos (without veils). They slept in communal quarters and took care of the cooking, cleaning and attending to the needs of the velo blanco.

The rules inside the convent were strict. Personal effects weren't permitted and communication with other nuns was allowed for only one hour a day – the rest was spent in total silence. Meals were eaten without speaking and contact with the outside world was almost completely prohibited. Once a month each nun was allowed a brief supervised visit from their family, but this took place behind bars and with a black curtain preventing them from seeing and touching each other. The only other contact with the city was through the sale of candles and foodstuffs, which was performed via a revolving door so that the vendor and the client were kept apart. Such transactions were the sole source of income for the nuns who were otherwise completely self-sufficient.

In the 1960s the Vatican declared that such conditions were inhuman and offered all cloistered nuns the world over the opportunity to change to a more modern way of life. Many of the nuns in Santa Teresa rejected the offer, having spent the better part of their life in the convent and knowing no different. Today most of the few remaining nuns are of advancing years and while the rules are no longer as strict as they once were, the practices have changed little. These days the cloistered lifestyle is understandably less attractive to young girls in an age where their families permit them to exercise their own free will.

Worth a Trip: Punata

This small market town 50km east of Cochabamba is said to produce Bolivia’s finest chicha (fermented corn drink). Tuesday is market day and May 18 is the riotous town festival. Access from Cochabamba is via micros (B$8, one hour) and taxis (B$10) that depart when full from Plaza Villa Bella at the corner of Av República and Av 6 de Agosto between 5am and 8pm.

Worth a Trip: Tiquipaya

The town of Tiquipaya, whose name means 'Place of Flowers,' is located 11km northwest of Cochabamba. It is known for its Sunday market, and for its array of unusual festivals: in late April or early May there’s an annual Chicha Festival; in July there's a Potato Festival; the second week in September sees the Trout Festival; around September 24 is the Flower Festival; and in the first week of November there’s the Festival de la Wallunk’a, which attracts colorful, traditionally dressed women from around the Cochabamba department.

Micros leave half-hourly from the corner of Ladislao Cabrera and Av Oquendo in Cochabamba. A taxi costs about B$50.