Areqipa’s colonial churches, an exercise in superaltives

As a casual observer, it seems the one thing the Spanish loved almost as much as extracting all the gold and silver from the former Inca Empire, was building churches with the proceeds. While these temples were undoubtably constructed on the back of immense human suffering, they did know how to build a church that sends you seeking for superlatives.

Like Cusco, Arequipa is awash with colonial-era churches. Thanks to successive earthquakes the Cathedral in Arequipa is relatively modern and understated – unlike Cusco, where the gaudiness of the cathedral left me feeling oppressed and gasping for air. Arequipa’s most extravagant ecclesiastical buildings are smaller churches, monasteries and convents – and that is before you even set foot in the truly extraordinary Monasterio de Santa Catalina.

The artistry, sweat and dedication which went into the creation of these buildings is humbling, even when set alongside the atrocities of religious colonialism (for more on that, a good read is Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming, which includes a fascinating section on the soul-searching of the Spanish Crown and clerics about the morality of the conquest).

The churches seem to be split into two types, those with ornate exteriors and those without, which may be something of an over-simplification. A beautiful example of the former is the Jesuit church, the Iglesia de La Compania, with its exquisite entrance.

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Less ornate on the exterior but with a rich inner life is the Iglesia de San Francisco, where a 5 soles entrance fee will get you a personal guided tour of the cloisters and quadrangles. If you’re lucky you may get to meet one of the remaining five monks still living in a private part of the complex. At a sprightly 89 years of age, I was fortunate to meet the eldest remaining monk who gave me a nod and a ‘hola’.

He seemed cheerful enough, but I couldn’t help thinking it must be a terribly lonely life in that huge complex.

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

The serene courtyard in the first cloister was adorned with some peculiar sculptures…some obvious in meaning, but whats with the foot in the mouth of the jaguar? My guide wouldn’t be drawn on the subject.

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Most churches in Arequipa have pretty irregular opening hours, which means you have to get lucky as you walk around the city to see more than just exteriors. After walking past the lovely facade of the Iglesia de San Augustin on several occasions we were on our way back to the hotel one afternoon and amazingly the front door was open. Never one to look a gift horse, etc.

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Finally, around the corner from where we were staying was the sturdy looking Iglesia de La Merced, which had been steadfastly locked for the duration of our stay. It came through early one morning by being open. Admittedly, it seemed like it had been opened to allow lay members to be trained, but they seemed happy to see us. I particularly liked the statue of nun holding a Spanish galleon.

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

A city within the city, Monasterio de Santa Catalina

In a city full of extraordinary colonial buildings with a rich ecclesiastical history, Arequipa’s Monasterio de Santa Catalina still manages to astound. It is huge, has beautiful buildings, plazas and gardens, but mainly it has a truly bizarre history that inspires both awe and moral indignation. The Monestario was an extremely wealthy institution, shown not only by its size (from the outside it looks like a massive impregnable fortress) but also by the grandeur of its buildings.

Entrance into the first cloister, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Entrance into the first cloister, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

The history of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, with its horrendous and hypocritical class system, was always going to captivate and repulse at the same time. The two hours I spent there could easily have turned to three or four and, despite the steep price of admission, I would happily go back. Also, an apology in advance, it is one of the most photogenic places I’ve been – so lots of photos.

Established in 1579, the Monasterio’s founder was the wealthy Spanish widow, Maria de Guzman. She established a system where the daughters of only the wealthiest Spanish families could enter the Monasterio (paying a very large dowry for the privilege). In return, the ‘nuns’ were permitted every luxury imaginable – the finest furniture, china and silks; parties, with musicians; the very best food and fine wines; and regular, unregulated visitors.

The latter included men. Understandably, the whiff of sexual scandal was never far away from the Monasterio – which to the contemporary eye looks like a religious private members club where money was far more important than faith, and the Paris Hiltons of their day could do whatever they wanted thanks to Daddy’s money.

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Worse than all of this by some considerable distance, the wealthy nuns were allowed by the ecclesiastical authorities to keep slaves – that’s right, slaves – to minister to their needs. Poorer nuns performed the role of servants to the wealthier nuns, who lived lives similar to their wealthy secular counterparts.

Each wealthy nun had their own private quarters, of various sizes, with a bedroom, living room, kitchens and outside space. Each had luxuries such as musical instruments, well upholstered furniture, china and crystal glass.

Entrance to private quarters, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Entrance to private quarters, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Bed in a wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Bed in a wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun's room with piano, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun’s room with piano, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Furniture in a wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Furniture in a wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Toilet. Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Toilet. Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

This deplorable situation continued for three hundred years. Finally, in 1871 the papacy sent a strict Dominican nun to sort the whole sordid mess out. She freed the slaves and liberated the servants, sent the wealthy dowagers back to Spain and reformed the whole rotten institution. Many of the servants and freed slaves remained as nuns, and the Monasterio closed its doors firmly to the public. Its affairs became an enigma for nearly a century.

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

As recent events have revealed, it is a rare occasion when the Holy See moves with speed to end shocking abuses within its ranks; it seems little has changed since 1871.

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Christ statue with shadow, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Christ statue with shadow, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Arequipa’s colonial charm, ceviche and Pisco Sour

After ten months in a landlocked country arrival in Peru meant one thing: fresh, ocean-going fish. That our first dish of ceviche, washed down with a Pisco Sour, came after a 20 hour journey from La Paz involving three different buses, including a nighttime journey over a mountain pass through a blizzard, and was eaten in the colonial surroundings of Arequipa, only made it more delicious.

Ceviche, Arequipa, Peru

Out of focus ceviche, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of colonial-era buildings, ornate churches and one of the finest plazas in Latin America. It is also dramatically situated with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, including the active volcano, El Misti – thanks to the low cloud of the rainy season we didn’t get a view of the mountains and had to use our imaginations instead.

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Without the vast tourist hordes of Cusco, Arequipa has a more relaxed feel that could easily seduce you for several days of culinary over-indugence in-between visits to museums and churches. Arequipa is a base to explore the Colca Canyon and to climb the nearby mountains, sadly we only had three days to linger here en route to Lima and our flight to the Caribbean.

It is a great city to stroll around admiring the architecture and sampling Peruvian culinary delicacies. In fact, the only real problem with Arequipa is the traffic. The number of cars (and the number of cars being driven by lunatics) takes some of the sheen off this lovely city. When crossing the road requires life insurance there really is a problem.

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Cars, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

I’ve always found it strange when you come across an ancient building put to modern usage, where the exterior of the building is in complete disagreement with the interior. In Arequipa there are just so many ancient building that not all of them can be museums. Instead, they are banks, airline offices, government departments…and the ubiquitous ’boutique’ hotel.

Ornate doorway, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate doorway to a bank, Arequipa, Peru

Door knocker, Arequipa, Peru

Door knocker, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate window, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate window, Arequipa, Peru

Courtyard, Arequipa, Peru

Courtyard, Arequipa, Peru

Alleyway behind the cathedral, Arequipa, Peru

Alleyway behind the cathedral, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Arch in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Arch in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru