While we were sad to leave Cusco behind, we looked forward to uncovering more of the sights and stories of Peru. Our next destination was Arequipa, a city famous for its grand colonial architecture constructed from sillar, a white volcanic rock.

Our hostel was set in a quiet neighbourhood, reminiscent of a small European suburb. Fiats and Volkswagens lined the freshly paved streets, flanked on either side with smooth sidewalks ending in manicured roundabouts.

Rather than trying to take in all the city’s sites in one day, Calina and I decided to focus on the most intriguing and famous, the Santa Catalina Monastery.  Built in 1579, the monastery is a city within a city containing 6 streets, 3 cloisters, 80 apartments, a square, art gallery, cemetery, gardens and an infirmary.

Home to over 200 nuns, the monastery was hidden from the public behind towering rock walls until 1970. The nuns who lived here were sequestered from the outside world, spending their entire adult lives in pious reflection, only communicating occasionally with family through the thick bars of the visitation cells.

While the monastery looks drab, gray and uninteresting from the outside, inside it is alive with vivid colours. Every street, plaza, archway, window and plant begs to be photographed.

The nuns’ rooms were built and furnished by their families; it was considered a great honour to have a relative living in the monastery. Each room contained a modest bed, living room and kitchen. Apparently, the nuns also had servants who outnumbered them!

When not praying, worshipping or meditating, the nuns made food products and crafts, including the eucharist used for communion, that were sold to the outside. The nuns had property rights, were organized under elected leaders and made decisions democratically about the management of the monastery. It seemed that the monastery walls afforded these women more liberties than those who lived “freely” in the city.

The nuns’ seclusion did not end with their earthly lives. Many who lived in the monastery died and were entombed there. Portraits of the deceased sisters line the walls of the funerary chapel.

Hours slipped by as we absorbed the meditative tranquility of Santa Catalina. We came to understand why the bustle of Arequipa couldn’t lure these women from their spiritual haven.