Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is so large there are cycling tours around it, a city within a city with streets signs to help you find your way. Its vast size is filled with beautiful chapels, mausoleums and graves that, architecturally, are on a par with La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. Which really is saying something.
Given that it’s home to dead people – as many as 2.5 million dead people in its 140 year history – its remarkably well maintained compared to the rest of Havana, where actual living people live.
I find cemeteries fascinating, and I’ve visited an unhealthy number in my travels, so I can say with some confidence that Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is one of the finest on the planet. A reflection of the wealth of Cuba’s past and the grandeur of the well-heeled Vadado area of the city where it’s located.
Catholic cemeteries in Latin America are frequently home to legends, those who have died (often in horrible circumstances) but who perform miracles from beyond the grave. In our old home of Sucre, Bolivia, there was a woman called Margarita who was murdered and decapitated by her husband. Once buried, word got around that she was performing miracles and the faithful visited her grave to ask favours.
In the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón the legend of La Milagrosa brings a steady stream of the desperate to the grave of Amelia Goyri, who died in childbirth at the age of 23. It’s said that Amelia’s husband refused to accept the death of his wife and newborn son; he visited the grave every day and knocked three times to wake them up.
Rumours soon started circulating that La Milagrosa would grant wishes. Today, mainly women visit the tomb to ask for protection for their children or for a healthy pregnancy, while those who cannot conceive ask for a miracle. There’s a donations box on the tomb, it’s anyones guess who the money goes to but maybe it’s used to pay for the flowers that surround the grave – the only one with lots of flowers.
Hundreds of Cuba’s most notable citizens are buried in the cemetery: artists, writers, sculptors, musicians (including members of the Buena Vista Social Club), baseball stars, Cuban presidents and Spanish nobility can all be found here. There’s at least one world chess champion and one US Congressman. Constante Ribalaigua, drinking buddy of Earnest Hemingway and inventor of the daiquiri, is also here.
Eduardo Chibas, a Cuban politician and anti corruption campaigner who famously committed suicide during a live radio broadcast in 1951, resides here. This act of defiance might have been forgotten but for a startling event at his funeral. As he was buried, a young Fidel Castro leapt onto his grave to denounce the government. It was an early public appearance for the future leader of the Revolution.
Catalina Laso, reputedly the most beautiful woman in 1930s Cuba, is buried here in a massive mausoleum. Already married, she fell in love with another man and they were forced to flee to Paris for 20 years before finally returning. When she died her husband had Catalina embalmed and came to visit her every day. Apparently, he was buried standing next to her, from where he could gaze upon her for all eternity.
There are quite a lot of communal graves for societies of firefighters, sailors, the Asturian Society, dockworkers and brewery workers. There is a communal mausoleum for Veterans of the Revolution. There is even a communal grave of the American Legion, where US soldiers who died in the 1898 war against Spain are buried. Intriguingly, one of three plaques on that memorial is dedicated to the Confederacy.
The cemetery is full of stories like these, and even fuller of wonderful architecture. It’s a tranquil place to explore and I could have spent hours wandering around. It was really hot though and not everyone in our group (of two) is as keen on cemeteries as me. We left the dead behind and headed off to find a cooling daiquiri to honour Constante Ribalaigua.