Described as “an exercise in pious excesses,” the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón (Columbus Cemetery, Zapata, esq. 12, tel. 07/830-4517, daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m., entrance CUC5 includes guide and right to photograph) covers 56 hectares and contains more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, vaults, tombs, and galleries (in addition to countless gravestones) embellished with angels, griffins, cherubs, and other flamboyant ornamentation.
You’ll even find Greco-Roman temples in miniature, an Egyptian pyramid, medieval castles, plus baroque, Romantic, Renaissance, art deco, and art nouveau art by a pantheon of Cuba’s leading sculptors and artists. The triple-arched entrance gate, inspired by the Triumphal Arch in Rome, has marble reliefs depicting the crucifixion and Lazarus rising from the grave and is topped by a marble coronation stone representing the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Today a national monument, Cementerio Colón was laid out between 1871 and 1886 in 16 rectangular blocks, like a Roman military camp. The designer, a Spaniard named Calixto de Loira, divided the cemetery by social status, with separate areas for non-Catholics and for victims of epidemics. It was originally open only to nobles, who competed to build the most elaborate tombs, with social standing dictating the size and location of plots.
Cementerio Colón is a petrified version of society of the times, combining, says the Guía Turística (available at the entrance gate), a “grandeur and meanness, good taste and triviality… and even an unusual black humor, as in the gravestone carved as a double-three, devoted to an emotional elderly lady who died with that domino in her hand, thus losing both game and life at a time.” The doble tres was that of Juana Martín, a domino fanatic who indeed died as described (Calles 6 y G).
Famous criollo patricians, colonial aristocrats, and war heroes such as Máximo Gómez are buried here alongside noted intellectuals and politicians. The list goes on and on: José Raúl Capablanca, the world chess champion 1921–1927 (his tomb is guarded by a marble queen chess piece); Alejo Carpentier, Cuba’s most revered contemporary novelist; Hubert de Blanck, the noted composer; Celia Sánchez; Haydee Santamaría, and a plethora of other revolutionaries killed for the cause, and even some of the Revolution’s enemies.
Many monuments belong to such communities as the Abakuá secret society, the Asturians, and the Galicians, and to groups such as film and radio stars. The Galería Tobias is one of several underground galleries; this one is 100 meters long and contains 256 niches containing human remains.
The major tombs line Avenida Cristóbal Colón, the main avenue, which leads south from the gate to an ocher-colored, octagonal neo-Byzantine church, the Capilla Central, containing a fresco of the Last Judgment.
The most visited grave is the flower-bedecked tomb of Amelia Goyri de Hoz (Calles 3 y F), revered as La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One) and to whom miraculous healings are ascribed. According to legend, she died during childbirth in 1901 and was buried with her stillborn child at her feet. When her sarcophagus was later opened, the baby was supposedly cradled in her arms. Ever since, superstitious Cubans have paid homage by knocking three times on the tombstone with one of its brass rings, before touching the tomb and requesting a favor (one must not turn one’s back on the tomb when departing). Many childless women pray here in hopes of a pregnancy.
The Chinese built their own cemetery immediately southwest of Cementerio Colón, on the west side of Avenida 26 (e/ 28 y 33, tel. 07/831-1645, daily 8 a.m.–4 p.m., free). Beyond the circular gateway, traditional lions stand guard over hundreds of graves beneath highly pitched burial chapels with upward-curving roofs of red and green tile in the traditional xuan-shan (hanging mountain) gabled style.
The northwest corner of Calles 23 and 12, one block north of Cementerio Colón, marks the spot where on April 16, 1961, Castro announced (on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion) that Cuba was henceforth socialist. The anniversary of the declaration of socialism is marked each April 16, when Castro speaks here. The facade bears a bronze bas-relief showing Fidel surrounded by the heroes who were killed in the U.S.-sponsored strike on the airfield at Marianao that was a prelude to the invasion.