Hallowe’en is just around the corner – and it’s time for the creepy and the scary.
In Latin America, this time of the year is also when the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead becomes so thin, that the living and the departed may communicate with each other. The holiday – celebrated on November 1, All Saint’s Day, and November 2, All Souls Day – is collectively known as El Día de los Muertos or El Día de los Difuntos.
But Latin American traditions, with pre-Hispanic roots, are much different than those the Northern Hemisphere celebrates. Especially in areas with large indigenous populations (Guatemala, southern Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile and Argentina), families gather in the cemeteries to clean and repaint their family graves, and decorate them with flowers. On November 2, they will gather at the tomb with the dearly departed’s favorite food and drink, and perhaps even a bit of live music. It is a wonderful cultural experience to witness.
Still, if you are in the mood for creepy and scary thrills during this time of the year, here are some places to add to your South American itinerary. There are witches, vampires, demons and other creatures, as well as many tortured souls. Many of these sites are tied with horrid chapters of the region’s history, and carry potent vibes of those who suffered. Others are infused with legends of mythical beings and mysterious events.
Most of these places you can also visit in the off-season, and still have quite a riveting experience.
And yes …. you can get there by bus!
1. Civacoa, Yaracuy State, Venezuela
During your travels, if you find yourself requiring help with a romantic relationship or are in need of healing or consultations, then call upon one of Venezuela’s most revered home-grown saints, María Lionza. You won’t find her on any Vatican list of official saints, as many consider her to be a demon incarnate!
María Lionza’s legend dates to pre-Hispanic times. It is said she was the green-eyed daughter of a local chieftain. One day an evil anaconda that lived in the lagoon killed her, but her beauty killed it back. She became the ruler of these waters, and of all nature: lakes and streams, caves and caverns, fauna and flora.
The several-day ceremonies at her sacred mountain, Santa María de Nirgua near Chivacoa (Yaracuy State), include bathing in ritual herbs, dancing and drumming. The shaman channels María Lionza’s energy in attending to your request.
You can arrange a trip to María Lionza’s sacred mountain with a curandera or curandero anywhere in Venezuela. S/he will accompany you there. Also, you can make it there on your own, and a shaman there will accompany you on your spiritual quest. If you cannot make it to Santa María de Nirgua, then a long-distance ritual may be done.
Santa María de Nirgua mountain, near Chivacoa (Yaracuy State)
2. Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena is renowned for its colonial architecture, but it has dark sides to its history. One of those facets is that it was a seat of the Spanish Inquisition, the institution that held the motherland and her colonies in a reign of terror lasting over 300 years. Its targets were “heretics” of the Catholic religion: healers, witches, pagans, Jews, Muslims and others who were seen as dangers to the “pure faith.”
Cartagena’s Museo de la Inquisición (Inquisition Museum) was the seat for the all-powerful Spanish Inquisition for the region. Different galleries recount the tribunal’s actions, human rights, and the persecuted populations.
Inquisition museums exist in other parts of the Americas. The Museo de la Inquisición in Lima, which has detailed accountings of the Tribunals’ victims and instruments of torture, is presently under renovation (http://www4.congreso.gob.pe/museo/index.html). Another is in Mexico City (http://cdmxtravel.com/es/lugares/palacio-y-museo-de-la-inquisicion-museo-de-la-medicina-mexicana.html)
Plaza de Bolívar
Monday-Saturday, 9:00a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday and holidays 10:00 a.m.-4 p.m.
$5.50 US (16,000 Colombian pesos). Free the last Sunday of each month.
3. El Salto, Colombia
Back in 1924, a luxury hotel opened at the top of a hill with a stunning view of the 156-meter (512-foot) high Salto de Tequendama (Tequendama Waterfall). It was the place to go for Colombia’s elite.
But the hotel has a lurid past. Legend states that many chose to commit suicide here, leaping from windows into the deep abyss. It took six seconds to reach the churning waters of the Lago de los Muertos below. At least 20 people chose to end their lives this way. It is said they chose this place because their bodies would never be found. Or perhaps, some express, there is something in this place’s energy that pushes people to jump.
The hotel’s caretakers say they often witness supernatural events in this place and hear heart-rending crying. Visitors may feel a heaviness in the air.
The hotel was abandoned in 1990. In this millennium, the old hotel was restored and is now the Casa Museo Salto de Tequendama Biodiversidad y Cultura, which features exhibits on the Tequendama Waterfall’s ecology and history of the area.
Kilómetro 5.7 vía Mesitas. Vereda San Francisco, Soacha (Cundinamarca), 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of Bogotá.
Weekends and holidays 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
4. Zipaquirá, Colombia
Since before the Spanish conquest, when the Muisca indigenous ruled this area of central Colombia, salt has been mined from the bowels of Zipa Mountain. For protection from cave-ins and other mishaps, Catholic miners constructed altars to the Virgin Mary.
In 1954, a cathedral was inaugurated on the second level of the mines. It was dedicated to the Nuestra Señora del Rosario, the patron saint of miners. Due to cracks appearing in the structural columns, this church was closed in 1992. Sixty meters (197 feet) below, work began on a new cathedral carved into the salt rock. The new shrine opened in 1995.
Who knows how many miners have died in these labyrinths of tunnels. But the ghost that appears on photos is not that of a grown man – but rather seems to be that of a small girl. Is the Salt Cathedral hiding some dark secret?
Parque de la Sal, Zipaquirá, 42.4 kilometers (26.5 miles) north of Bogotá.
Daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
$14 US (40,000 Colombian pesos)
5. Quito, Ecuador
Quito has many haunted places – not surprising for a city as ancient as it is, predating the Spanish conquest.
But when I asked a close friend about places he would suggest I include in this article, he stated, “The Eloy Alfaro monument in El Ejido, where he and his compadres were bludgeoned to death. Walking past that always gives me shivers up the spine.”
Over the years, I had heard about the death of then-President Eloy Alfaro, who served 1895-1901 and again 1906-1911. According to the tales, he was drawn and quartered, then burned on 28 January 1912. But searching online provided few details about what precisely happened. I decided to ask don Marco, a native-born Quiteño historian, born and raised in the Centro Histórico. What he recounted to me, much of it told to him by his older relatives who witnessed the event, is worthy of a Hallowe’en terror movie.
Shortly before he was arrested, a woman read Alfaro’s tarot cards. She warned him not to return to Quito. He said he must fulfill his destiny. In Guayaquil, he was detained by those who opposed his plan to increase property taxes (by a mere one-one-thousandth of a percent). He and six of his supporters were sent by train to Quito. Upon arriving at the Chimbacalle station at 9 a.m., they were transported to the García Moreno prison (on Calle Rocafuerte near the San Roque Market) where they were killed. At 10 a.m., Alfaro was shot in the chest and in the throat (to prevent him from screaming) and fell to Rocafuerte Street below. Still a cry could be heard – and residents of that barrio say that on the anniversary, you can hear it at that hour.
Three horses then were tied to his limbs to tear his body apart. But the one holding his hands suddenly, mysteriously died. The other two horses dragged Alfaro’s body and the third horse to Plaza Santo Domingo. At Bolívar and Guayaquil streets, La Pájara – a woman believed by locals to be a witch – cut off Alfaro’s testicles and penis and hung then from the portico on that corner.
The entourage of Alfaro enemies continued the procession, dragging the bodies of Alfaro and the six others to El Ejido Park. But something strange happened along the way: Alfaro’s body disappeared – just disappeared. To this day, no-one knows what happened to it, or where it may be hidden.
The other six were burned approximately in the vicinity of where the Eloy Alfaro Monument now stands in El Ejido Park. I asked don Marco why, then does my friend always gets shivers up his spine when he walks past it. He is feeling the anguish of the common people, he said.
Center of Parque El Ejido (between Av 10 de Agosto and 6 de Diciembre, and between Av Tarqui and Av Patria), Quito
6. Cueva de los Tayos, Morona Santiago Province, Ecuador
Deep in the virgin jungles of eastern Ecuador is Cueva de los Tayos, a cave named for the oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis) that live in it. From the nearest town, it is reached by boat, then by hiking or horseback.
Getting to this cave is not the only adventure you may have. Once you descend into the 63-meter (207-foot) deep Chiminea, a narrow chute, you emerge into a world of large galleries connected by tunnels, all carved by subterranean waters. Stalactites and stalagmites decorate the inner realms. These caves have been sacred to indigenous nations for over 3,000 years and archaeological remains, including burials, have been found.
But the Cueva de los Tayos has a mystery. In his 1973 book The Gold of the Gods, Erich von Däniken claimed that Argentinian-Hungarian entrepreneur Juan Moricz discovered gold artifacts, tablets, sculptures and other objects in a chamber even deeper in this cave. Some say these were part of the lost treasure of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor.
In 1976, an expedition of Ecuadorian and British military personnel, professional cavers and astronaut Neil Armstrong, extensively explored this cave. Archaeological artifacts were found, but nothing fitting von Däniken’s descriptions.
Some say, though, that much of the gold was stolen by Father Crespi, a Salesian priest who worked in the region in the 1920s, and that helicopters were sent in to retrieve much more wealth. The findings were displayed in the Museo Privado de Carlos Crespi Croci in Cuenca. After a fire in 1962, everything disappeared. The archdiocese of Cuenca denies it has it in its possession – though Shuar guides to the cave claim that much of the gold in Cuenca’s cathedral came from here.
Cueva de los Tayos may be visited only with permission from the Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar (FICSH), whose offices are in the town of Sucúa. A native guide will be assigned to accompany you. Will you be able to discover Atahualpa’s long-missing wealth?
Cantón Limón Indanza, Morona Santiago Province
7. Lima, Peru – Catacumbas de San Francisco
Iglesia de San Francisco is one of Lima’s oldest churches. The monastery was originally established in 16th century. The present temple, in a beautiful Spanish Baroque architectural style, was declared sacred in 1673 and its construction was completed in 1774.
The tour of the monastery includes parts of the church and the library containing over 25,000 manuscripts. The big draw, though, is the catacombs, where the earthly remains of estimated 200,000 souls lie in eternal repose. The catacombs were used until the beginning of the 19th century, when Lima’s public cemetery opened.
Although the catacombs opened to the public in 1950, the extent of the maze of tombs remains unexplored. How many more bone-strewn galleries are there, and how far beneath this historic city do they spread?
Jirón Lampa, Historic Center of Lima
Daily 9 a.m.-8:15 p.m.
$3 US (10 Peruvian soles)
8. Arequipa, Peru
Like many old cities, Arequipa has many spooky legends that haunt its night streets. There’s the headless Franciscan monk who wanders the alley behind the Cathedral, and the mermaid at Puente Bolognesi who lures young men to their deaths.
But the most startling tale is of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. The nuns that lived in this convent – a city within the city – were a mystery to the outside world for over four centuries. It is said vampires disguised as nuns and priests would leave through a secret door in the thick walls, with the mission to drink the blood of unsuspecting night travelers.
Today, you can visit the convent and learn about how the Sisters live here, and wonder if any of the present cloistered residents make any nighttime excursions!
Santa Catalina 301, Arequipa
Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (to 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday)
$12 US (40 Peruvian soles
9. Pisagua, Chile
Once upon a time, Pisagua was a booming port town for the nitrate mines in the interior of the dry Atacama pampas. The town had many beautiful mansions and even a theater, all built of imported Oregon pine. But the importance of nitrate faded, as did the town. Then its history became dark.
In the 20th century, at least 11 times the town served as a detention center for political prisoners. The most famous of these were in 1941 (detaining homosexuals), 1942, 1947-48 (memorialized by Pablo Neruda in his Canto General) and 1973-74 (during the Pinochet dictatorship). The Colonia Penal jail was where most prisoners were tortured and executed. Along the coast, less than a kilometer from town, are the ruins of the Pinochet-era detention barracks.
Up on the cliff, a few kilometers from Pisagua, lies the cemetery. Among the graves of the dead of this village is a mass grave of those who died during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Not many choose to spend the night in Pisagua, but the few travelers I have met who have done so said they heard moans and other strange sounds throughout the night. If you decide to stay, there is one small hotel, and a campground next to the Pinochet-era center.
228 kilometers (142 miles) south of Arica, 164 kilometers (102 miles) north of Iquique.
10. Iquique, Chile & surrounding area
Iquique was the major port for Humberstone and other nitrate (saltpeter) mines that operated on the pampas east of the city. Iquique was where the rich people lived, but the pampas and the mines were a hell on earth for those who worked them.
Untold thousands died, not only from mining the caustic mineral, but also on the trek across the desolate pampas in search of work. To this day, many say their spirits roam there. Nobody will pick up a hitchhiker at the side of the road, only at a crossroads. Truckers are known to keep a flask of urine on hand to throw at any suspected ghost.
Hundreds of oficinas, or mines, operated in the area. The most famous is Humberstone, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The immense complex is now a ghost town and includes the company store and theater, the mining operations, and housing for the company executives. The most spiritually startling corner of Humberstone, though, is the miners’ housing. In these non-descript, small rooms (measuring five by four meters / 16 by 13 feet) lived several men. At the end of each double row of 62 rooms are the outhouses these residents shared. Today, the dry desert wind bangs gates and whirls through the now-door-less and pane-less quarters. You can almost hear the conversations, the groans, the lives of those men long dead.
The conditions in the mines were so horrific, that in 1907 the workers declared a general strike, and their families marched into Iquique. They encamped in the Escuela Santa María (Amunátegui 902) where on the 21st of December they were massacred. It is said on the anniversary of that horrid event, you can hear the screams of the hundreds killed there.
Humberstone: 48 kilometers (30 miles) east of Iquique
Daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
$5 US (3,000 Chilean pesos)
11. Potosí, Bolivia
Cerro Rico (tr. Rich Hill) in Potosí was the main source of silver for the Spanish Empire during the colonial period. After independence came to this Andean nation, the 500-600 mines of this 4,800-meter (15,748-foot) high mountain continue to be worked, even until today.
According to historians, some eight million miners have perished in these mines over the centuries. The work conditions are horrific: a labyrinth of over 20,000 low, muddy, dimly lit tunnels held aloft with rotting wooden beams and with walls oozing arsenic. About four miners per month continue to succumb to these mines’ dangers.
Is it no wonder, then, that at the entrance and scattered throughout the mines are altars to El Tío, the god of the underworld that looks like the devil. The miners honor him with coca leaves and tobacco, beseeching protection from the perils of working in this subterranean hell.
You can take a half-day tour of the mines to learn more about the miners’ hardships, and of their rituals to stave off misfortune. Be sure to make an offering to El Tío to ensure a safe visit!
Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia
$50+ US (for tour)
12. Formosa, Argentina
Although the duendes of El Bolsón in Argentina’s Patagonia are better known, on the opposite end of the country, in the far northern province of Formosa, other mythical beings roam the villages and countryside. In case you are there in the heat of summer when some of these duendes are most active, you may want to take precautions!
Duende is a difficult word to translate into English, as it encompasses a whole range of beings common in northern European folklore: elf, imp, goblin, troll, gnome, pixie, leprechaun and a host of other manifestations.
In Formosa Province, four principal duendes haunt the local populace. Cara’i Octubre, the goblin of misery, comes to visit on the 1st of October. At this time of year, the very end of winter and before the first spring crops come to fruition, food is scarce. People prepare a cauldron of stew for him, for if they don’t, Cara’i Octubre will crack his whip and curse the household with starvation.
As the summer heat begins to swell in November, women have two duendes they must protect themselves from. Curupí hobbles around on his backward-turned feet during daylight hours, capturing human females with his meters-long penis. At night, the duende Pombero wanders, kidnapping women and leaving them pregnant. If you want to make friends with him, then leave some cane liquor and tobacco in the patio oven.
Children are pursued by Yasí Yateré. This duende with long, blond hair is reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Waving his golden wand, he bewitches children, takes them off and drives them insane.
You can meet up with these wild creatures at the Museo Regional del Nordeste Formoseño in Laguna Blanca.
Ruta Nacional 86 and Pueyrredón, Laguna Blanca
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-noon, 3-6 p.m.; weekends 9-11 a.m., 4-6 p.m
13. Córdoba, Argentina
From 1976 to 1983, a brutal dictatorship gripped Argentina. According to human rights organizations, over 30,000 people – mostly youth – disappeared, were tortured or murdered. Throughout the country the regime operated “detention centers,” some of which are now museums called Archivo de la Memoria (Memory Archives).
The Archivo de la Memoria in Córdoba, located on an alley next to the cathedral, is an especially potent experience. If you are sensitive to energies, you might find this a rather uncomfortable visit. The walls that hid the torture chambers have been removed, and the cells – many inscribed with the dying words of the political prisoners – once more see the light of day.
Other former torture centers from the 1976-1983 dictatorship are also now museums, including the Archivo de la Memoria in Resistencia and Rosario, and the ESMA in Buenos Aires (www.espaciomemoria.ar).
Pasaje Santa Catalina 66, Córdoba
Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet and translator. She has authored ten guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 100 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; 18 anthologies and eleven chapbooks – including the collections of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For more than a decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.