By Mariana Gonzalez-Marquez
Guadalajara, Mexico, Oct 29 (EFE).- Nighttime tours featuring spooky legends and strolls amid the forbidding grounds of a nearly 200-year-old Mexican cemetery are adding a pinch of fright to the Day of the Dead festivities.
Those after-dark guided walks among tombstones, ancient trees, mausoleum towers and a even a group of resident cats are offered year-round at Panteon de Belen, a cemetery in the western city of Guadalajara.
But the number of visitors increases in the lead-up to the Nov. 1-2 Day of the Dead holiday, when demand grows for paranormal experiences.
Pedro Gomez, who has worked as a guide at the cemetery for the past five years, told Efe while nonchalantly walking past the mausoleums and vaults that the cemetery has been a Guadalajara landmark since it opened on Nov. 2, 1848, and is a can’t-miss site at this time of year.
He said that starting Oct. 28 as many as 2,000 people wait in long lines to enter the cemetery, mostly groups of young people or families looking for a bit of fun and adventure.
“All Mexicans like to hear those legends, those stories they tell, which have been passed down from generation to generation. And that’s why they enjoy those spaces,” the guide said.
The tours unfold in near-total darkness while a guide informs visitors about the history of the cemetery and tells them scary tales like that of “El niño Nachito,” a young boy intensely afraid of the dark who died of a heart attack after being left alone without candlelight.
He was supposedly later buried in an open-air tomb, his casket flanked by four torches to keep it permanently lit.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, people are not currently allowed to set up Day of the Dead altars inside the cemetery to honor their dearly departed.
Instead, the visitors are offered a special dimly lit tour to satisfy that very Mexican desire to be in contact with death.
“Maybe it’s hard for a foreigner to understand. There’s no way to explain it, it’s part of our cultural wealth,” Gomez said. “They have to have the experience of coming to a cemetery and hearing stories and legends. There’s no other way for them to feel this experience.”
Formerly known as Santa Paula, the cemetery was the first in the city to serve as a burial ground for people of all social strata. Before it was opened, people were interred in church gardens.
“It was Guadalajara’s first civilian graveyard. Although originally built by order of the Catholic (Church), it was later managed by the government,” Gomez said. “It’s the only (cemetery) still standing from the 19th century.”
The burial ground initially had one section for the wealthy, another for the poor and a pair of mass graves for those not claimed by any family member.
Preserved and maintained by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, a federal government bureau, the cemetery was named a national heritage site in 2010 in recognition of its unique historical and architectural legacy. EFE