Why Latin America?

There Is a Reason Why I Keep Going Back There

My first vacation on my own—at the age of thirty—was to Yucatán. In the intervening years, more than two-thirds of my international vacations have been to Mexico, Central or South America. Originally, my interest was in Pre-Columbian archeology. I still am, but I’ve added post-Columbian (i.e., Christian) archeology to my interests. The two exist side by side in fascinating ways.

Many Latin-American towns have museums of religious statuary and paintings that used to be in churches that are no longer in service. Lima, Peru, for instance has a fascinating museum in the former Archbishop’s palace adjoining the cathedral.

Sacramental Vessels from Lima’s Archbishop’s Palace

American tourists usually go in for all the pre-Columbian sites, but are totally uninterested in the ruins of Catholicism that are evident all over the place. In places like Buenos Aires; Cuenca, Ecuador; Mérida, Mexico; and Antigua, Guatemala there are old churches that are no longer in use, but there are thousands of items of religious art that are fascinating to me. One of the most incredible is the huge monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, which is like a walled city in its own right.

The Monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru

In the morning that I visited Santa Catalina, I took the two-hour morning tour. Then I went to lunch and had some rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed Peruvian green pepper) in a restaurant behind the cathedral. Then I went back and spent the whole afternoon actually trying to get lost as I wandered through the narrow streets and saw the chapels, nuns’ cells, gardens, kitchens, laundries, and other services that made up the monastery.

Looking back, I think I’d rather see Santa Catalina again than Machu Picchu. In my mind, they are of equivalent interest, but Santa Catalina is much nicer.

 

The Mysterious Convent

The Gateway to Santa Catalina Convent

The Gateway to Santa Catalina Convent

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of colonial sights worth seeing in Peru. Probably the most fascinating of them all, however, is the Convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It’s almost more of a citadel than a convent, though some nuns still live on the grounds. It is a gigantic place with stairways leading to nowhere—mainly because most of the second floor was destroyed by the many earthquakes that have hit the city.

It is easy to spend all day wandering through the streets of the convent and in and out of the nun’s cells (such as the one illustrated below). More than anything else, it reminds me of the miniature cityscapes of the Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde in Colorado, except the convent seems to go on forever.

Nun’s Quarters

Nun’s Quarters

I started seeing the convent with a tour guide. That served only to whet my appetite. After a long lunch break eating rocoto relleno at a second floor restaurant behind the cathedral, I returned to the convent and spent two more hours on my own.

It was endlessly amazing: passages that led off in every direction, walls painted red for public areas and blue for private (or at least previously private) areas. It was as if the convent were decorated by professional artists, with flowers and old furniture and cooking utensils available everywhere.

Oven and Stairway to Nowhere

Oven and Stairway to Nowhere

As I write these words, I find myself wanting to continue exploring the convent for endless hours, looking to turn that corner where I will find cloistered Dominican nuns (of the same order that taught me at Saint Henry’s School in Cleveland, Ohio) praying for my salvation.