Even if you’re overdosed on colonial edifices, this convent shouldn’t be missed. Occupying a whole block and guarded by imposing high walls, it is one of the most fascinating religious buildings in Peru. Nor is it just a religious building – the 20,000-sq-meter complex is almost a citadel within the city. It was founded in 1580 by a rich widow, doña María de Guzmán. Enter from the southeast corner.
The best way to visit Santa Catalina is to hire one of the informative guides, available for S20 from inside the entrance. Guides speak Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese or Japanese. The tours last about an hour, after which you’re welcome to keep exploring by yourself, until the gates close. The monastery is also open two evenings a week so that visitors can traipse through the shadowy grounds by candlelight as nuns would have done centuries ago.
Alternatively, you can wander around on your own without a guide, soaking up the meditative atmosphere and getting slightly lost (there’s a finely printed miniature map on the back of your ticket if you’re up for an orienteering challenge). A helpful way to begin is to focus a visit on the three main cloisters. After passing under the silencio (silence) arch you will enter the Novice Cloister, marked by a courtyard with a rubber tree at its center. After passing under this arch, novice nuns were required to zip their lips in a vow of solemn silence and resolve to a life of work and prayer. Nuns lived as novices for four years, during which time their wealthy families were expected to pay a dowry of 100 gold coins per year. At the end of the four years they could choose between taking their vows and entering into religious service, or leaving the convent – the latter would most likely have brought shame upon their family.
Graduated novices passed onto the Orange Cloister, named for the orange trees clustered at its center that represent renewal and eternal life. This cloister allows a peek into the Profundis Room, a mortuary where dead nuns were mourned. Paintings of the deceased line the walls. Artists were allotted 24 hours to complete these posthumous paintings, since painting the nuns while alive was out of the question.
Leading away from the Orange Cloister, Córdova Street is flanked by cells that served as living quarters for the nuns. These dwellings would house one or more nuns, along with a handful of servants, and ranged from austere to lavish depending on the wealth of the inhabitants. Ambling down Toledo Street leads you to the cafe, which serves fresh-baked pastries and espressos, and finally to the communal washing area where servants washed in mountain runoff channeled into huge earthenware jars.
Heading down Burgos Street toward the cathedral’s sparkling sillar tower, visitors may enter the musty darkness of the communal kitchen that was originally used as the church until the reformation of 1871. Just beyond, Zocodober Square (the name comes from the Arabic word for ‘barter’) was where nuns gathered on Sundays to exchange their handicrafts, such as soaps and baked goods. Continuing on, to the left you can enter the cell of the legendary Sor Ana, a nun renowned for her eerily accurate predictions about the future and the miracles she is said to have performed until her death in 1686.
Finally, the Great Cloister is bordered by the chapel on one side and the art gallery, which used to serve as a communal dormitory, on the other. This building takes on the shape of a cross. Murals along the walls depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.