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Concentrating very, very hard!


Convent full of picturesque angles

The roads in the centre of the city today were full of school children, lined up and ready to march. Walking bands were interspersed between them. Down at the Plaza de Armas there was some sort of procession. We took a pew in one of the cafes to watch the proceedings. Apparently today is Pope's day, a local festival, and all the children are marching through town.

It was quite funny to watch them. There were tiny kids, probably no older than five or six, struggling to keep in time. The older ones were more serious and there were some great displays of goose stepping. Both the kids and their teachers looked really smart in their uniforms.

In the afternoon we visited the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, which is a convent and has never been a monastery. In its heyday there were 175 nuns (500 people in total) in the convent, now there are only 30. Its a closed order and the nuns have virtually no contact with the outside world. They are commercially savvy though - they only live in a small part of the site which is the size of 4 football pitches in total, the rest is rented to a private company who provide tours for tourists.

The site is a rabbit warren of rooms and passages. When it was founded it was designed for members of the aristocracy. The eldest son and daughter in a family would get married (not to each other!). The second son had a choice - the army or the priesthood. If he chose the army the second daughter had no choice and was sent to the Monastery. In this way every family had someone in a religious order who would then spend their life praying for the wellbeing of other family members. Girls arrived there aged 12 and spent four years as novices. During this time they had no contact with the outside world or any of the nuns (as the nuns could have influenced their beliefs). At 16 they became nuns. But these were nuns with a difference!

Being from wealthy families they were well looked after. During their time as a novice their family built them their own private apartments (lounge, bedroom, kitchen and sometimes also a garden or courtyard) within the monastery. These were richly decorated and furnished with the finest table ware etc. Each nun had up to four maids to look after their every need. The nuns entertained each other and from the sounds of it had a good life. Outside of the monastery there were revolutions and the Spanish Inquisition so at least inside they had a protected life.

The only thing they didn't have was their freedom. Visits from family were few and far between and all were listened in to by another nun. A grille separated the nuns from their visitors so there could be no contact. Any presents, or shopping done by their maids, were all inspected by another nun.

In 1870 the then Pope decreed that this somewhat extravagant lifestyle for nuns had to come to an end. Gone were the private apartments, entertaining and maids. In came communal cooking, dining and sleeping. Not surprisingly, second daughters of wealthy families no longer wanted to come to this monastery and the population dwindled.

The old regime whilst lax in some ways was also strict in others. Nuns were not allowed to see themselves naked and had to bathe fully dressed. If male visitors (doctors, workmen) came to the monastery the nun who accompanied them was veiled and she rang a bell as she walked along so that all the other nuns could ensure they were not seen. It was a fascinating place to visit and well worth getting a guide to explain the background and context.

We also wanted to go the Museo Santuarios Andinos to see the Ice Maiden. This is the mummy of a young woman offered as a sacrifice who was found on a climbing expedition after a volcanic eruption melted ice that had been frozen for centuries. Unfortunately the museum is being refurbished and is closed and there is no information about where she may be in the interim. Instead, we stopped for a drink on a rooftop cafe with views on the back of the Catedral. We were entertained by several pairs of frisky pigeons who seem to have pretty elaborate courtship rituals.