“I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates,” said Alfredo the hunchback over the phone, “and don’t forget to bring a candle.” That night, away from the bright lights of the city, and with the moon hidden from view, a shadowy figure appeared out of the darkness and the gates cracked open. Somewhere, a dog barked. Thirty intrepid souls, giggling nervously, followed Alfredo tentatively to an enclosed courtyard. There, surrounded by the dead, he whispered in their ears of terrible tragedies, grim goings on and doomed love affairs. Then, clearly intent on scaring the bejesus out of everyone, he threw a fire-cracker into the air and cackled as a group of men screamed like girls.
Photo by Jason C. Hickerson
The General Cemetery in Recoleta has been running its hugely successful night-time tours on Friday and Saturday nights since 2006. Tourists and ghoulish locals can choose between the popular route - which visits the memorials of modern heroes such as Victor Jara, Violeta Parra and Salvador Allende - or the historical trip around the older part of the cemetery where the majority of Chile’s ex-presidents (with the notable exception of Augusto Pinochet) are buried.
In addition to paying respects to all the famous folk, the Popular Tour also takes in some of the cemetery’s most notorious residents, including a priest who was accidentally buried alive and a group of students from Universidad de Chile who died in a shoot-out with police at La Moneda (Chile's presidential palace) in 1938.
A particular favorite for many is the story of ‘La Novia Muerta’ (the dead bride), who fell down some stairs and died on the way to her wedding. Unbeknown to her, the groom hadn’t been waiting; he’d had last minute jitters and failed to attend. Legend has it that she still wanders the cemetery at night in search of him.
And then there’s Gabriel Lira. He was said to be so devastated by his wife’s death that he hung himself at her graveside. Many have claimed to see his shadowy, weeping form as they pass near his tombstone.
All of this was told with relish by Alfredo (actually tour guide/actor Cristian Niedbalski) who lapped up his role as spooky story-teller on this two hour meander around Chile’s oldest cemetery. Obviously not content until every last one of the group was whimpering for their mums, he hobbled into a three story labyrinth worthy of a horror film set and then disappeared from view.
Inside, it was pitch black. As thirty pairs of eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness and people gingerly started to shuffle their way through the narrow passageways, the screaming started. Cemetery staff dressed in black hooded robes were looming lugubriously around every corner, and as they playfully reached out to tap unsuspecting shoulders, tourists ran out terrified into the night. Just like the living, Santiago’s dead don’t get much peace and quiet on the weekend.
As the tour wound its way round to the far side of the cemetery, and the grave of Victor Jara, the tone became more solemn. The jokes were dispensed with as Alfredo recounted the day in September 1973 when one of Chile’s most loved folk musicians, theatre directors and political activists was tortured and killed at the hands of the military forces.
Near his simple grave lies Patio 29, the final resting place of hundreds of anonymous victims of the early months of the dictatorship, which was declared a national monument in 2006. Those who just a few minutes earlier had been squealing with scared delight, now looked mournfully at the lines of rusting crosses and moved on without a word.
The visit finished with a final salute to Chile’s ex-president, Salvador Allende, whose remains were brought here in 1990 on the anniversary of his election and are now kept in a massive mausoleum close to the entrance. As candles were extinguished and mobile phones were switched back on, Alfredo posed for photos, before the realm of the living and the bars of the city beckoned, and the dead were left to rest once more.
Night-time tours of the cemetery take place on Friday and Saturday nights at 7.30pm and cost 2,500 pesos per person.
Photo by Jason C. Hickerson
N.B. All tours are in Spanish and at the moment there are no plans for tours in English. If your language skills aren’t great, be sure to take your own translator!
Reservations are essential and can be made by contacting:
Tel: 737 9469, on extension 219
During the last week of each month, the schedule for the following month is released with tours alternating between popular and historical. Guests under the age of 14 are not allowed and those under 18 must be accompanied by their parents.
The General Cemetery can be found at Av Profesor Alberto Zañartu 951
Metro: Cementerios on the yellow line. The entrance gate is on the right as you exit the metro station.