ReportageGhosts in Bogotá, a Journey to the Land without Shadows

Ghosts in Bogotá, a Journey to the Land without Shadows

Por: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Fotos: Lisa Palomino


Cemeteries always hold a certain fascination: the gray, martial structures, the echoes of the stone labyrinths that call to mind melancholy music, and the crows, swallows, and turtledoves that migrate from distant lands and end up inhabiting the cupolas, monuments, roofs, and open graves. This is why a curious photographer and a journalist were eagerly haunting the gates of the Central Cemetery of Bogotá, beguiled by the idea of a special journey to the most populated and mesmerizing land ever: the land of the dead. For some it is somber or shadowy, for Shakespeare it was the road of no return, and for most it is an unknown and a descent into darkness.

It is interesting that modern cemeteries have been beautified, after decades of being considered unfit for anything other than gloomy funerary rites. Some cemeteries in forward-thinking urban centers even hold art exhibits, tributes to deceased filmmakers or sculptors, commemorations, ideological and political events, pagan ceremonies, and even mournful rites for those of the Goth persuasion.

A few months ago, a film director screened a movie in Bogotá’s Central Cemetery, attracting an audience of more than two hundred spectators and turning the scene into a bohemian witches’ Sabbath. Of course the cemetery suffered the same stresses and chaos as any venue overrun by a Dionysian horde, much to the confusion of the proprietors of the mausoleums and vaults sheltering loved ones during their long sleep.

“The idea of tourism has changed over the years, and contact with the essence and soul of a culture is now an imperative. For example, we are trying to reconstruct Bogotá’s past, providing visitors with an unconventional diversion. This is why, in addition to this ghost tour, there are charming tours of neighborhoods such as La Candelaria; delicious and truly authentic Bogotá breakfasts; and even visits to weddings in the traditional Bogotá style. Nonetheless, none of these entrancing diversions are more popular or better-received than the ghost tour. Cemeteries are no longer merely for burials,” noted Ana B, one of the industrious guides and employees of the Bogotá Travel Guide agency, which organizes these tours of the afterlife.

Shades of History

“We are trying to recreate the grandeur, ignominy, doubts, passions, and loves of those buried here, since in their own way, they all made history,” said another of the organizers emphatically as we penetrated the stone labyrinth at night under a benevolent moon that softened harsh lines.

As we continued our tour, a tale began to tease our imaginations as quiet, long-departed, invisible, characters that live only in memory began to appear. These characters were slowly revealed to us through a skillful dramatic narrative. The actors managed to transport us from one century to another, from the long-ago founding of Bogotá to the 1980s. We darted lightly and elegantly through the years, and here and there we encountered the Bogotá stories that created the identity of the city. The anecdotes were sometimes bewitching, but often distorted by legend and myth, and occasionally they resembled nothing less than a ballad, ranchera, or vallenato song.

We visited the tomb of Luis Carlos Galán and the leader himself stood atop the tomb and instructed us in the art of regaining lost dignity; next came the tomb of former President Eduardo Santos and his wife, Lorencita Villegas, sorrowfully and lovingly surrounding the resting place of a daughter who died young; we visited the tombs of soldiers who gave their lives for the cause, and others who, in contrast, perpetrated uprisings, riots, and the only coup d’état in 20th-century Colombia; finally, we visited the imperial tomb of Alfonso López Pumarejo, the Colombian who changed the face of the nation with his “revolution in progress”…

We saw poets like León de Greiff, cartoonists like Ricardo Rendón, and classic and revolutionary painters. The strange and unfinished story of Colombia and Latin America emerged from these tatters of memory, as did bandits, swindlers, and even some murderers. Here the age-old quarrels, estrangements, subtleties, and partisan skirmishes seemed to have faded into oblivion.

In the manner of wailing specters, the acting troupe staging the lives and deaths of the departed set up their gear near the crypts, and they rehearsed the nuances of voice by grunting like strange birds and exercised their flexibility as with the understated moves of yoga masters. The whole scene was a sort of vision: if we tourists watching the rites could have passed for characters in a Cortázar story, the performers bore a striking resemblance to the penitents in a Bosch painting.

“I have done several Shakespearean tragedies, which has given me an understanding of the close relationship between the theater and death, the theater and art, and the theater and the profound questions of life,” said Sebastián, an actor well versed in the dramatic Russia of Stanislavski and Chekhov, and who switches roles in every one of the annual shows. Free-thinking and forward-looking liberals such as Alfonso López Pumarejo and Eduardo Santos lie near implacable adversaries such as conservative leader Laureano Gómez and dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.

“The burials give a comprehensive idea of how a Bogotá native lived and, if we believe in that other life touted by scripture, they also hint at our fate after we depart this life,” said an observer from a long line of Bogotá natives; this anonymous—at his explicit request—informant regularly visits the Central Cemetery to pay tribute to the illustrious departed.

A Ghostly Finish

The Bogotá Travel Guide’s flow of metaphysical tourists had ended, and actors and pilgrims began to leave the graveyard. We were riveted by how the performers who had played heroes, suicides, former Presidents, writers, and generals or Ministers of yore morphed into ordinary people after more than two hours of walking in the footsteps of those ingenious souls.

We said goodbye to our fellow visitors, but intrepid photographer Lisa Palomino wanted to capture more images for her report. Being accustomed to chattily watching her work, I started to follow her through the stone labyrinth. Twenty or thirty minutes elapsed; it was time to leave and go home.

When we reached the exit, the huge gate with bars reminiscent of an infernal jail was already closed and fastened with enormous copper padlocks. The tourists and actors had melted away and the security guards were nowhere to be seen, even though we clapped and shouted like shipwrecked souls. We were locked in. Time passed and we had nearly resigned ourselves to wandering around the cemetery when we ran into the actress who played the Lonely Soul.

She was removing her make-up amidst intricate paths of gloomy stone. She looked exhausted, weighed down by overwhelming fatigue. She told us that clapping for more than six minutes would bring out the gatekeepers. This infallible trick would attract their somewhat erratic attention. Her advice was sound. After clapping for six minutes, a sleepy, serene man appeared. He told us that tourists and mourners had sometimes gotten locked in during the night and when they were found in the morning, they seemed different, touched by a peculiar lucidity.

As we left, he padlocked the gates again, but we warned him that one person was left behind: the actress who portrayed the Lonely Soul. That cannot be…,” he said, “I said goodbye to the last of the actors and I made sure no one remained inside…You cannot believe everything you see inside.”