Guidebook: The Rough Guide to Chile
Cemeteries might seem like an unusual place to travel, but they often make for a peaceful hideout from the bustle of a city or a good place to while away a spare afternoon. Often national cemeteries feature some very interesting examples of architecture stretching back many years, and can offer an insight in a country and its history.
Santiago General Cemetery (Cementerio General de Santiago) in Chile is absolutely huge, with an estimated 2 million burials in its 85 hectares. As with the Cementerio de los Illustres in San Salvador, many of the country’s rich and famous are buried here, including almost all of Chile’s former presidents (the two exceptions being Gabriel González Videla and, unsurprisingly, Pinochet). There are also memorials to Chile’s police officers (Policia de Investigaciones de Chile), fire fighters (bomberos), and to political activisist Gladys Marín Millie.
Getting to the cemetery is easy, as it is only slightly north of the city centre. A taxi ride should be relatively cheap and there were ranks of taxis outside the main entrance when I visited. There is a metro stop right across the street from the side entrance, providing connections to all over the city.
From the metro stop, the nearest entrance is the east side entrance, with the main historical part of the cemetery on the left. Although the cemetery and tombs are not as brightly coloured and decorated as others in Latin America (El Salvador, for example), the vibe is very different to a European cemetery. There are so many internments here that the entrance road is flanked with tombs several storeys high, and the presence of a few hawkers selling flowers and sodas gives it a strange, almost city-like feel.
Further in, turning left from the entrance into the historical part of the cemetery, the environment is more peaceful. Walking the narrow roads between the rows of tombs in the chill of an early July morning – the middle of the Southern winter, with the trees having shed their leaves – was a strangely calming, slightly spooky experience that sometimes reminded me of countless horror films. The tree lined avenues offer a peaceful maze in which to get lost, the silence only punctuated by the occasional security guard passing on a bike or a cat skulking across the road.
The central, historical, area of the cemetery has wide roads and a number of ornate mausoleums, statues, and other memorials at the major intersections. Many notable Chileans are buried in the cemetery, and it is worth looking some of them up before visiting, as there is often little at the individual tombs to explain the individual’s role in Chile’s history. One such grave is that of Salvador Allende, who was elected Chilean president in 1970. As the first democratically elected Marxist president in Latin America, Allende was clearly a worry to the US: the CIA ultimately backed a military coup, which saw Allende overthrown in September 1973. He would be replaced by the infamous Augusto Pinocet. A memorial for his victims – Patio 29 – is also located in the cemetery.
Away from the main streets the tombs are packed much more closely, separated by narrow, tree-lined streets. In the quiet of the early morning it is an atmospheric experience, and quite absorbing to walk narrow paths, perhaps turning a corner to find an old, once elaborate tomb that looks like it hasn’t been visited for many years. Often individual mausoleums house several generations of the same family; some are overgrown, some have fresh flowers on their steps; others are even crumbling. There are even steps down to below-ground tombs containing multiple burials. It’s an intriguing mix that had me wandering around for several hours, wondering what I would find next.
The age of the cemetery (it was established in 1821) means it features a wide range of architectural styles. There are classic Roman style statues of mournful women standing beside headstones, somewhat risque angels guarding tombs, bright and colourful tombs, and even an Egyptian-style pyramid!
Although it might not be the first stop on your list, the Cementerio General de Santiago is a great place to visit for anyone interested in Chile’s history and politics, in architecture, or in photography. I spent an entire morning here and only left because I had other places to squeeze into my day – I left feeling I had only seen a small fraction of the place.
The Cementerio General de Santiago website has some information and history in Spanish but is also useful for non-Spanish speakers. Guided tours are available (Spanish only), but you can download cemetery maps showing the location of the most prominent figures: look for Ruta Chile Siglo XIX (19th century route) and Ruta Chile Siglo XX (20th century route).