The department of Quetzaltenango, in the west of the country, is one of the places in Guatemala that you should visit. In addition to places that are of interest to those who admire architecture, you’ll find natural wonders and historical sites that will leave you impressed.
In the capital of the department, the city of Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela or Xelajú), you should visit – especially during November – a very peaceful place where surely none of the tenants will bother you while you’re there: the municipal cemetery. It may be the architecture, the quiet, or the peace that you’ll feel in the atmosphere, or perhaps it’s all this combined with vistas of the surrounding landscape that will make this an excellent stop on your itinerary.
This cemetery was built after an epidemic in 1840, when there was a need to find a place for the remains of those who did not survive. At the entrance, an arch very similar to the Arc de Triomphe welcomes you. It was built to commemorate the end of the “Sixth Nation” of Central America which ended with the invasion ordered by the acting president of Guatemala at the time, Rafael Carrera. Almost immediately you’ll see the tomb of Juana Aguilar, the first tomb that was built here, and nearby, a sculpture of a reclining woman with something in her hand, a portrait. The mortuary sculpture is “Vanuška” (on the crypt it says Vanushka, spelled as it’s pronounced). It’s said that Vanuška was a Gypsy from Hungary, and that she came to Xela in the 1930s with her family. She fell in love with a young man from high society, and the story goes that he fervently loved her back. Both families opposed their relationship and thwarted every attempt by the young couple to run away and get married. It’s said that during their last escape attempt, knowing that they would never be allowed to be together, they both jumped into a ravine. She was given a humble burial in the general cemetery, and he was buried in his family’s mausoleum. Stories are told that at night the lovers meet at the gates of the cemetery, and their spirits – finally reunited – wander the graveyard.
Visitors to Vanuška’s grave will find hundreds of requests for help from those who need a favor to be with whom they love and hundreds of thanks for having interceded favorably from those whose love stories came true.
Besides learning about forbidden love, when you go further into the cemetery you’ll see many mausoleums that can easily be called architectural gems, thanks to their designs and the materials from which they’re built, since many are made of Italian marble. Hundreds of pieces were cut from European quarries and traveled around the world to reach the old port of Champerico, on the Pacific coast. From there they were transported to what became the final destination of many, where they still adorn mausoleums built in the Baroque, Classical, and Neoclassical styles. You should also take some time and see the decapitated sculptures which can be found in the cemetery as well.
Finally, by walking to the highest point in the cemetery, you’ll come to a hill from where you can see the entire place. This spectacular view will clearly show the differences between the social classes, still evident even after death. During this month when Guatemalan traditions include those who are no longer with us, a visit to this beautiful place and appreciating all it has to tell, including an essential part of the country’s history, is something that we highly recommend.