Havana is home to one of the world's largest and most captivating cemeteries, a must-see for the curious-minded. It's not just enormous in size but also grandiose and eccentric in style, and filled with innumerable characters from Cuba's absorbing history. As cemeteries go it is far from being an austere place. Instead, it is more like walking through an outdoor museum.
In Spanish, it is known as "Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón" (and sometimes "Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón"), named after Christopher Columbus. The cemetery was completed in 1876 and to date has over 56 thousand tombs and over 500 mausoleums. In total, well over a million people have been interred here.
The main entrance is an iconic piece of architecture, featuring sculptures and reliefs by the Cuban sculptor José Vilatra de Saavedra. It is known as the Gate of Peace ("La Puerta de la Paz"), a fitting name considering it is where so many souls are laid to rest. It features heavily in the classic Cuban comedy film The Death of a Bureaucrat ("La Muerte de un Burócrata").
Inside the cemetery, there are plenty of trees that provide shade. However, as you will often be exposed to the sun and the heat, it is worth going there on an overcast day or taking advantage of the cemetery's early opening time (8 am) to enjoy the visit at a cooler temperature. If you've been out late the night before drinking and dancing, this is easier said than done.
You could just stroll around aimlessly, picking out random tombs and monuments. You have plenty to choose from! Alternatively, for a small fee, you can purchase a map at the entrance to the cemetery which has recommendations of what to see and a detailed layout of where they are. Also, the cemetery's own tour guides are often available to show you around, and they can help to fill you in on the lives of a selection of the people who have been interned, and the details of their memorials.
Tombs range from the highly ostentatious to the plain and humble. As a place where so many people have been buried, you could spend all day exploring the different resting places. There are independence leaders (e.g. Máximo Gomez), writers (e.g. Alejo Carpentier), scientists (e.g. Dr Carlos J. Finlay), politicians (e.g. Eduardo Chibás), revolutionaries (e.g. Celia Sánchez), poets (e.g. Nicholas Guillén), singers (e.g. Ibrahim Ferrer), cooks (e.g. Nitza Villapol), the list goes on.
Interesting things you can see in Havana's Colon Cemetery
If all that has been mentioned above has still not persuaded you to visit, here are a few more things that might pique your interest:
The "Miraculous Woman" - Amelia Goyri
This tomb is so popular that there is sometimes a queue. Why?
It is referred to as "La Milagrosa", meaning "The Miraculous Woman". In 1901 Amelia Goyri died during childbirth and was buried here, along with the stillborn child. The story goes that the child had been placed at her feet, but when the tomb was exhumed a few years later Amelia's body was uncorrupted and she was apparently cradling the child. Word very quickly spread about this miraculous occurrence, and her husband commissioned the statue that you can see today of his wife holding the child.
For over a century it has been a place where people have come to pay their respects, leave gifts and pray for their hopes and dreams to be fulfilled. You may notice people performing a specific ritual for doing so. This involves knocking on the tomb using the metal ring so as to alert Amelia of one's presence, then saying one's name out loud and asking in silence for the "miracle", leaving an offering (usually flowers) then walking away from the grave backwards.
The Spiritual Medium - Leocadia Pérez Herrero
This is another tomb that receives a high amount of visitors asking for favours and consolation, usually from the Santería community. Leocadia Pérez Herrero was a spiritual medium whose spiritual guide was Hermano José, and the tomb is generally named after him than after her. She was known for being a very charitable person, and after she passed away in 1962 her tomb increasingly became a point for people to try to reconnect with her and Hermano José. As with Amelia Goyri, flowers are often left, but at this tomb, you might also find glasses of rum and smoked cigars.
The Firefighters Monument
This large memorial commemorates the 25 firefighters who lost their lives during a fire at a hardware store in 1890. To remember their bravery, the monument was erected in 1897 and includes four large figures that represent pain, self-sacrifice, courage and martyrdom. Furthermore, the face of every firefighter that died has been carved into the base of the monument.
The Octagonal Chapel - Capilla Central
Right in the centre of the cemetery is the "Capilla Central" or Central Chapel, which holds the honour of being the only octagonally shaped chapel in Cuba. It is built in a Neo-Romanesque style and immediately catches the eye. Completed in 1886, it sits harmoniously with the grid layout of the cemetery, marking the geometrical centre. To this day it is still a working funeral chapel, and its large size means it can potentially hold up to 700 people.
The parents of José Martí, and his mentor
Near the main entrance can be found an enormous memorial to the parents of José Martí, Julián Martí and Leonor Pérez. It is a testament to the part they played raising one of Cuba's most important figures from the 19th century who helped Cuba achieve independence from Spain. The memorial also doubles up as a memorial to "Emigrados Cubanos" (Cuban emigrants) and it has a large Cuban flag flying beside it.
Also buried in Colon cemetery is Rafael María de Mendive, a poet and teacher who mentored José Martí in his adolescence. His influence was openly acknowledged by Martí, and the monument reflects his importance in shaping Cuban history.
The Chess Player - José Raúl Capablanca
This tomb stands out for the statue that can be found on top. Whereas nearby tombs have opted for religious iconography, especially Christian crosses and statues, this one has a giant chess piece. José Raúl Capablanca, who died in 1942, was one of the greatest chess players ever to have lived. As a celebrity in the 1920s, he was often referred to as the "Mozart of Chess", and "The Chess Machine". From 1920 to 1927 he was the World Chess Champion, a fact that is mentioned next to his name on the tomb. The giant chess piece is made of marble and was the work of Cuban artist Florencio Gelabert. Fittingly, the chess piece chosen is a king.