It was our first full day in Cuba, having arrived from the airport sweaty and sticky from the humidity the day before.
Our lovely hostel owners had shaken their heads in dismay when we’d told them how much we’d paid for a taxi to get to their place, and it seemed like we’d already had a taste of what it’s like to be ripped off in Cuba. Not that the extent of our ripping off ended there.
On the advice of the owners, the next day we took a tour bus to explore the city. Dave and I aren’t normally into the whole tour bus thing, but it only cost a few dollars and we figured it’d be a good way to get our bearings.
Boarding the bus after eating possibly the worst sandwich of my life – tuna with nothing else, not even mayonnaise – we settled in for a top front seat in the open air.
Colon Cemetery, Havana
I studied the map to see where we’d be headed. One of the stops was the Cementario de Colon, Havana’s cemetery, and Dave agreed that it’d be a nice spot to get off for awhile.
Arriving at the gate, we were annoyed that it cost US$5 each to get in – it was just a cemetery after all, wasn’t it? – but with a half hour wait until the next bus, we thought we might as well check it out.
As we started to stroll around, a security guard came up to us and introduced himself as Giovanni. At first I got a bit annoyed, thinking he was a tout dressed in security clothing, but Giovanni’s charm soon got the better of us and before we knew it he was taking us around on his own personal tour of the place.
“I have an Italian name, but I’m really Cuban,” he laughed, eyes sparkling, before offering Dave a cigar. I declined.
As Giovanni lit the end of Dave’s cigar, Dave puffed deeply and promptly burst into a coughing fit. “Geez, that nearly blew my head off,” Dave coughed as Giovanni smiled.
As we strolled around, Giovanni pointing out various graves of long-dead Cubans, he began to ask us questions. Getting an affirmative as to whether we were married, Giovanni quickly followed up, “Do you have children?”
“Not yet,” said Dave, as Giovanni explained he was married off to an 18 year old when he was 22 and they have three children – all girls.
Dictator burial site
Giovanni interrupted his life story to show us the grave of the President of Cuba between 1940 – 1959, Fulgencio Batista, who was a dictator in his later years.
It’s estimated that more than 20,000 Cubans died under Batista’s rule, and in Giovanni’s own words, “He was a dictator who stole all our money and let the people starve.”
Moving along, we passed hundreds, if not thousands, of graves spreading out in all directions. Giovanni told us that the Colon Cemetery, Havana is the third largest cemetery in the world, after Rome’s and Buenos Aires, at 5km².
It’s pretty old too, having been built in 1876, but it’s in good knick and we passed construction workers painstakingly restoring the limestone as we walked around.
Suddenly, Giovanni stopped in front of a patch of land. It looked like there weren’t any graves in this area, the ground being flat and absent of tombstones.
“This is where poor people are buried,” Giovanni sighed.
He explained that people with money are able to put their families into graves with their names carved on them. These people pay a large fee to keep their grave for life, ensuring that no one else will be buried in that spot.
For the poorer families, they have to pay a yearly fee to keep their grave. All the sites with a number mean that someone else can be buried there if that fee isn’t paid. If the fee isn’t met, after eight years the bones are taken out to make room for someone else, and are put into a small box.
This box is then stored inside a nearby mausoleum, and if the family still can’t front up with the costs, the bones are thrown into a mass grave.
The cost to keep a grave is 30 pesos (US$30) a year, which might seem like a lot, but for many Cuban families it’s a cost that’s out of reach.
Giovanni walked over to the mausoleum and disappeared around the back. “Come around here guys!” we heard him call.
I looked at Dave and he shrugged.
We decided to follow.
Bring up the bodies
As we rounded the back, we saw dumpsters full of bones, piled high and shoved haphazardly in any place that was free.
“There’s a bit of an overcrowding issue,” Giovanni said, stating the obvious. “Here, follow me.”
He shook hands with another security guard and led us into the mausoleum. It was dark and dusty, and there were bones everywhere. My hairs stood on end. “This is plain creepy,” I muttered to Dave, who was a few steps behind me.
We turned around and walked back out into the sunshine, relief flooding into me that we’d escaped the claustrophobic dark space.
In the bright light, I glanced at my watch and realised the next bus would be arriving soon. We’d already spent nearly an hour wandering the cemetery with Giovanni.
“We should make a move,” I said to Dave.
“Not before I get a photo with Giovanni!”
And with that, I pulled out the camera, Dave put his arm around Giovanni’s shoulder, and they grinned at me.
With tombstones gleaming behind them, it might’ve been a little inappropriate, but I managed to get the shot.
Have you ever been to an interesting burial ground?
What you need to know:
Cost: Entry is US$5 per person. Giovanni says it normally costs about US$20 for a tour. I think getting led around by a security guard is the norm, so you can find your own Giovanni. We tipped him US$5.
When to go: The cemetery is open from 8am – 5pm.
How to get there: You can take the tourist bus, which leaves from the main Havana square, or walk. It’s on the corner of Calle 18 and Zapata.