La Ultima Morada (The Ultimate Dwellingplace)
By S. Eliot Chandler
Lonely Planet’s guide to Guatemala (2007) describes Antigua’s cemetery as “a beautiful conglomeration of tombs and mausoleums”. Yet there is no mention of Xela’s fascinating and colorful Cementerio General, where the tombs and headstones are brightly painted and the architecture of the monuments is diverse. And if you look closely enough, you will discover intriguing history in this graveyard dating back centuries.
From red to purple, every shade of the rainbow can be seen amongst Xela’s tombs. The cemetery’s outer wall, a continuous row of crypts stacked four high, is a patchwork of pastels dominated by bright pinks and Tigo blues. But the variety of Xela’s graveyard isn’t just the colors. The mausoleums range in style from Egyptian pyramids to Roman columns to free style cobblestones.
Don’t stop at the last manicured path (1a Avenida), where the ornate memorials end. Continue your tour up the steps to where the plots are tightly packed among the overgrown weeds. You will see the same vibrant colors of the wealthier section, but the graves are more modest. Some are plain block tombs; others are simple concrete headstones and crosses. Many of the graves in this area are marked only by a mound of dirt.
Take the time to read the dates and bylines of Cementerio General’s inhabitants. Along 15a Avenida you will find a community of Germans resting beneath a grove of shade trees, three of whom died on the same day-June 3, 1917. Former Guatemalan Presidents are reportedly buried here, but perhaps the burial ground’s most popular resident is Vanushca.
According to legend, Vanushca Cárdenas Barajas was a gypsy girl who fell in love with a wealthy young Spaniard. However his parents forbade the union and she died of a broken heart he was sent to Spain to marry against his will. Visitors still honor Vanushca’s spirit with flowers at her final resting place. Her bright pink tomb, just inside the main entrance, is covered with graffiti from people seeking the gypsy’s help in finding true love or in returning a wayward husband.
Cementerio General is located across the street from Parque El Calvario (12 blocks west of Parque Central) and is open from 7am-6pm. There is a small flower market outside the entrance if you wish to leave a tribute to Vanushca. Xela’s cemetery far outshines Antigua’s in color and intrigue. Don’t let Lonely Planet’s oversight keep you from enjoying it.
Editor’s note: Your XelaWho team recommends visiting the Cementerio General in groups for safety reasons. There have been muggings and the like.