By Willa Ahlschwede

Willa Ahlschwede was born in Omaha, Nebraska but currently lives, travels and writes from her homebase in Ollantaytambo, Peru.

In the heart of historic Arequipa visitors can step through a doorway, back in time and into the quiet and peace of the Monastery of Santa Catalina. As it may have been for the nuns who resided in the convent centuries ago, the maze of gardens and living quarters is a haven from the bustle outside, a city within a city separated by high walls of Arequipa’s famous white sillar stone.

The Convent was founded in 1579 at the urging of a growing Catholic society. At this time, a wealthy, young widow named Doña María de Guzmán became the first to take vows and dedicate her life to the convent, donating her entire fortune.

Though initiates both rich and poor were accepted, many of the women were daughters of high society who paid rich dowries to the Church and brought along fine silver, china, tapestries and furnishings. Tales circulated that behind closed doors the women lived in cloistered luxury with twice as many servants as nuns.

In 1871, Pope Pius IX sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a strict Spanish nun, who got to work sending back the dowries and freeing the servants who were given a chance to take vows and stay on as devotees. After two devastating earthquakes in the 1960s, the remaining nuns moved into new private quarters on the property and the rest was restored and opened to the public.

Visitors today will wind their way through vibrantly colored patios, stone alleyways and the humble private rooms where the nuns lived, their communal kitchen and unique outdoor laundry. Geraniums bloom and footsteps echo, drawing you deeper into the labyrinthine complex which takes up a whole city block.

The site is a beautiful example of the Arab-influenced Mudéjar architectural style with arched galleries and intricate stonework.

There are historic artifacts from life during the colonial era and a large collection of religious paintings from the Cusco school of art from the 1500-1700s. To fuel your visit, there is a small cafe within the complex serving coffee, desserts and creative dishes playfully inspired by the history of the convent. For a truly magical after-hours visit, the grounds remain open lit entirely by candlelight until 8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Located just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas on Calle Santa Catalina, the Monastery costs 35 soles per person and experienced guides are available inside. Regular hours are 8am-5pm, seven days a week, plus 8am-8pm Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Special interest cultural and architecture tours can be arranged through Aracari Luxury Peru, a specialist in tailor-made, unique travel experiences and luxury tours in Peru