We are in Guadalajara, the capital and center of commerce of Mexico’s state of Jalisco. Panteón de Belen, known also as Santa Paula Cemetery, is located north of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Guadalajara in the heart of Mexico’s third largest city. The name Cementerio de Santa Paula, or in English, the Saint Paula Cemetery, comes from the fact that there is a chapel dedicated to the saint on the cemetery grounds. The cemetery was designed by the famous Mexican architect, Manuel Gómez Ibarra, who, 30 years earlier, redesigned the spires of the Guadalajara cathedral which were destroyed in an earthquake.
The cemetery was built to meet the need for more burial spots for victims of the epidemics, primarily cholera. Perhaps due to this tragic origin, the cemetery is shrouded in myths and tales of ghosts roaming the grounds until current days.
Local lore includes the legends of a Pirate, Lovers, a Monk, a Nun, the Vampire Tree, a Child Afraid of the Dark, a sick boy who lost his faith and others. People have claimed to see these deceased residents haunting the graveyard over the years and the cemetery now offers night tours of the grounds, functioning as a sort of macabre open-air museum.
May 24th 1882. A big storm was about to hit the city of Guadalajara. A young couple was putting their 10-years-old-son to bed. His name was Ignacio Torres Altimirano and his parents and grandparents lovingly called him “Nachito.” As Nachito was afraid of the dark, he always had to sleep with two lit torches outside his bedroom window and slept with the windows open. On this night, when the storm hit Guadalajara, the torches blew out. In the morning the next day Nachito’s mother entered his room and could immediately tell something was very wrong as the room was extremely cold. So, she ran to her son’s bed to find Nachito motionless and as cold as the room. Later it was determined that Nachito had died of a heart attack that night because of his intense, almost pathological, fear of the dark. Rumors began to spread that the young boy’s heart had exploded inside his chest and Nachito’s horrible death was the result of a curse or was the work of demons. Nachito was buried at the nearby cemetery, called by locals El Panteón de Belén and the next morning, the boy’s coffin was found disinterred and lying on the ground next to the hole that was Nachito’s grave. The parents and the locals alike were alarmed and the cemetery caretaker reburied the boy’s coffin. However the next morning, the same thing happened, and it happened again for the next 9 days. Nachito’s parents concluded that because the boy was so afraid of the dark, he did not want to be kept in the ground away from the light. The solution? Make a stone coffin, standing on 4 short pillars above the ground, so Nachito’s tomb could always see sunlight. Since the time of Nachito’s death many people visiting the cemetery have claimed to have either seen or heard the young boy, or have seen mysterious balloons floating evenly a few meters over the cemetery as if being carried by a child. Of course, Nachito’s grave draws the curious from all parts of Mexico, some of whom leave him a toy and ask him for a favor. On Children’s Day, which locally is celebrated on April 30th, and Christmas Day especially, the area surrounding Nachito’s final resting place become covered in small toys and plush animals. The caretakers of the cemetery always donate the offerings to local hospitals and the items are donated to terminally ill children.
According to another popular tale, a swashbuckling man once sailed the Pacific during his youth and attacked many ships laden with the riches from the Orient. As a middle-aged man, the pirate decided to settle and make a real life for himself in Guadalajara. He had only one son, who did not know of his father’s former life as a pirate. It seems that the man had stashed somewhere in the Guadalajara area a massive treasure comprised mostly of gold and precious stones and a few months after hiding its, the man died and was buried in the Santa Paula Cemetery. According to the legend, if a devout person visits the pirate’s grave at midnight and prays the rosary for the man’s tormented soul, the ghost of the pirate will reveal the exact location of the treasure. As people have been trying this for years, it is said that the ghost has not yet found the right devout person!
Another Santa Paula legend speak about a child is connected to the former hospital next door. A young boy named Santiago was suffering from a terminal stomach ailment and, in some stories it is an aggressive type of cancer. During one of her visits, Santiago’s mother brought the boy one of his favorite saint statues from home, to help give her son comfort through his illness. While he was sleeping, the mother placed the small statue in the boy’s hands and when he awoke, he threw the statue up against the wall, cursing God for giving him such a terrible disease. He yelled to anyone who would hear his wish that God himself would contract the horrible illness that he was suffering from. Santiago ended his rant by saying something like “If God gets this disease, let’s see who will cure Him.” That night, the boy’s pain was more intense than ever and he wandered outside the hospital and into the cemetery. The next morning the boy’s body was found hanging from a tree, with the hospital bed sheets used as a noose. Sometimes at night people claim to see the boy hanging from a tree inside the Santa Paula Cemetery. This story is often told to children so that they will not lose their faith in God.
However, one of the most interesting stories connected with this cemetery has to do with a vampire. Oh, It seems that who haunted (or haunt!) the Highgate cemetery in London is not the only one! In the mid-1800s, so the story goes, scores of small animals were found throughout Guadalajara dead and without all their blood. After months of this eerie event, the same phenomenon started to happen to human infants. The alarmed citizenry then formed a vigilante group to hunt down the supposed vampire who was responsible for this. The mob rounded up a few suspects and singled out the palest and most “vampiric-looking” man of the group. As is customary according to the legendary rules in vampire lore, they drove a stake through the man’s heart to kill him. The group then took the man’s body to Santa Paula, placing it under a large stone grave. Locals rejoiced when the vampire attacks ceased, thus proving that they had killed the right man. Time gone, and a tree started to grow over the slab covering the vampire’s grave. It is said that if you break one of its branch, it will spurt blood, and even the leaves of the tree will leave a strange red residue in your hands if you handle them. The tree is now rather large with a huge root system that grabs the slab like the tentacles of an octopus. It is said that when the tree’s root system eventually breaks the slab or causes a gap between the slab and the rest of the tomb, the vampire will escape and seek revenge on the modern citizens of a cosmopolitan Guadalajara.
In addition, popular is also the story of Victoriana Hurtado, a woman who was born in 1833 and who suffered from catalepsy since she was a child. According to the legend, she was buried alive by her own children: Octaviano, Alejandro and Javier, who took advantage of the fact that her mother’s illness at times made her suffer in a state of stiffness, unconsciousness and diminution of pulse. However, they could not fulfill their purpose: to distribute the fortune of Victoriana: the woman had, in fact, left every penny for charity! The real story was known because the watchman of the cemetery heard a terrible cry from the tomb of the woman, the very day of her burial. When he arrived he saw the bloodied hand of Victoriana who tried to leave the tomb. Later it was learned that she died of a heart attack and the hand was petrified.
The cemetery is also recognized for its historic architecture and its many high profile burials. Panteón de Belen used to be divided into two parts: one for the wealthy, and one for regular “commoners”. The latter was converted to a hospital after the cemetery’s closing in 1896, but the section for the wealthy has remained intact.
Santa Paula’s largest building is the main mausoleum which contains 900 niches and is surrounded by a colonnade of pink cantera-stone columns with classical ionic finishes. The Cemetery draws many thousands of tourists per year who not only come to view the architectural beauty or to enjoy the adjacent museum, but come for the nighttime ghost tours and are fascinated by its many legends.
Ivan: there are special tours at night. There are also special events during the Day of the Dead, such as comical and dramatic plays or expositions.
Leo: probably I will never go to Mexico, but if I ever had the opportunity, I would definitely visit this cemetery. Writing this article with Ivan (which in my opinion is a professional writer), it was really very interesting!