Last year for Thanksgiving, I hosted 12 people and 9 dogs in New Mexico for an off grid feast. I was trying to remember what I did for Thanksgiving dinner the year before and looking at my 2010 calendar, now I see why I couldn’t recall: two years ago I was in Peru, fresh off a trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and my brother and I ate a very unconventional Thanksgiving dinner at a market in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city.
I went to Peru to visit my brother Paul, who had been living in the Ecuadorean rainforest, teaching English and guitar to Shuar Indian kids, who called him Pablo.
In the middle of the school year, for visa reasons, Paul had to leave Ecuador for three weeks. When he told me he was planning on spending his exile in Peru, I booked a cheap (under $500) last minute plane ticket to Lima and called my editor to ask if the magazine would be interested in a Travels in Geology column on trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. A week later, we were there.
Not many experiences can top a four-day hike on the the Inca Trail, up and over three Andean mountain passes, past incredible ruins, through misty cloud forests and arriving at the Sun Gate just in time to watch dawn break over Machu Picchu, but spending Thanksgiving at the Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa came pretty close.
The Santa Catalina Convent is one of the oldest cloisters in the world. Since 1580, women have come to this walled sanctuary in Peru’s second-largest city to commit themselves to a life of seclusion. After a year of contemplative silence, the nuns give their vows and never venture outside the walls again. Today, about twenty nuns still live in a quiet corner of the city block-sized complex and the rest is open to the public.
Complex is the right word for the place. Paul and I spent most of the day exploring the endless interconnected rooms and passageways, completely forgetting about the hectic world on the other side of the wall. With its brightly painted passages and centuries-old frescos it was truly a beautiful place. Everywhere I looked was a photograph and I took hundreds.
Wandering the endless courtyards and passages, I fell in love with the bright colors and quiet corners and could imagine, for a few hours, finding peace in never leaving. What a perfect place to give thanks for this crazy life less ordinary, no turkey necessary.