Manga's Cementerio de Santa Cruz: an unusual attraction

They say there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.

If the latter is getting you down you might like to reflect on the former, not in a grim or sad way, but by being pleasantly surprised by exploring one of Cartagena's best kept secrets: Manga's Cementerio de Santa Cruz.

Situated just a short taxi ride away from the historic central district, the cemetery offers an interesting and peaceful excursion for visitors looking for something a bit different. I went there on the invitation of Luisa Alvarez, an architect who is leading a campaign by the "Projectistas Cementerio Santa Cruz" to have the historic cemetery restored and protected. "London's Highgate and Buenos Aires' La Recoleta attract thousands every year" she said, "so could Manga."

Cartagena was founded in 1533, but the Manga cemetery probably dates from the late 1700's. In those days Manga was a swampy island, a short distance outside the city limits; the perfect place for a graveyard. Today Manga is one of Cartagena's more exclusive suburbs, and beautiful homes like the Casa Román surround it.

Unlike many other cemeteries, there is no ornate entrance gate to welcome visitors, just a secure door, the whole yard surrounded by a high wall. Once inside however, the main walkway opens up with graves of the wealthy either side of it. Away from the central walkway, the more historic graves are generally to the right, while the left mainly holds the poor. Our guide was an elderly caballero called Manuel "mochila" Victor Herrera, a cheerful man with a single bottom tooth who has worked at the yard for many years.

By taking a stroll around the graves one cannot but learn a little of the history of Cartagena de Indias. The earliest graves predate Colombian Independence. In fact one of Luisa's dreams is to pinpoint the burial site of the Nine Martyrs of Independence, executed by Spanish royalist Pablo Morillo by firing squad in 1816: their corpses were buried in Manga in unmarked graves, along with the approximately 6000 Cartagena citizens who starved to death during Morillo's ruthless six month siege of the city. In 1849, a cholera epidemic decimated the population of Cartagena by another 4,000, or approximately a third of its people. Many people were buried in unmarked graves during these two periods.

Most of the more ornate tombs were built prior to 1900, in marble imported from Italy. The man who imported that marble, and the marble used in buildings and monuments in other parts of Cartagena was Juan Bautista Mainero Trucco, is himself buried in the yard. Cartagena-born Rafael Nuñez, writer of the Colombian Constitution and national anthem, victorious leader of the Conservatives during the civil wars of the late 1800's, was first buried here before being transferred to Cabrero. His family tomb can be seen on the left hand side towards the end of the main walkway.
Another famous person buried here is Juan Jose Nieto, an important figure in the period from 1840 to his death in 1866: a friend of Santander and enemy of Bolivar, he eventually became governor of Cartagena, and he led revolutionary military campaigns against various elected Presidents.

Luis Felipe Jaspe, a kind of Colombian Gaudi, designed many famous Cartagena landmarks, including the beautiful Parque Centenario, Torre del Reloj, Parque Bolivar, Cartagena's Calvo Library, and Teatro Heredia. He was the first to bring some architectural organization to the cemetery where he is now buried.

Many of Cartagena's most famous families are represented in Manga: the Román, Velez, Lemaitre, Gomez, Pombo, Pareja, Calvo-Muñoz, Rumie and Ganem families all have prominent tombs. Gabriel Garcia Marquez' mother, Doña Luisa Santiaga Iguarán, was buried here in 2002.

Perhaps the most impressive tombs are the Castillo Espriella and Espriella Abadia family vaults, exact copies of each other near the end of the main walkway, and at the entrance, the imposing Fernado Velez Danies mausoleum.

Less affluent folk are buried in small square spaces that are built into the perimeter wall, closed off with a memorial plaque of inscription, though some are marked merely with their name and date scratched into the wet mortar. One of the most interesting of these smaller tombs is Monica Restrepo, entombed in the rear wall, who died in 2000. Her tomb features a bronze heart, spirals, sea-shells, ceramics and a sun symbol all set into the face-block.

Some graves stand out because it is of polished granite, not the customary Italian marble, or because they have English names inscribed upon them. One such grave reads thus, in English: "Sacred to the memory of Captain Robert Watson, late commodore of the West India and Pacific Steam ship company, died 8 Jan 1891. This stone was erected in loving memory by his brother captains." Is this the same Captain Robert Watson who first settled Lizard Island off the coast of Queensland, and whose wife, child and Chinese servant died of thirst in 1882, drifting in the sea in a barrel which they used to escape an Aboriginal raid? Until further reserch reveals the truth, one can only wonder.

Walking around the left hand wall, the visitor will come upon bags of skeletons, stored in the spare wall-cavity tombs. Luisa told me these are the bones of desconocidos, unknown people buried in unmarked graves, accidentally disinterred during more recent burials.
A bit further along the same wall you come to the "osario" a special section reserved for the bones of young children.
The Cementerio (sometimes referred to as a `Jardin de Paz', or Garden of Peace), is suffering from tree root under growth (Luisa said the trees grow very quickly here: must be all that blood and bone) and some monuments have a distinct tilt to them. The smell of shady jobo fruit trees is unmistakeable in the West yard, where we saw workmen and visitors picking up the small orange fruits and eating them. Unfortunately, vandalism has destroyed some tombs, and theft is a problem, as people steal the ornate marble statues for their gardens, or the bronze and aluminium escutcheon plates for scrap.

Some tragic family histories can be read, like the grave marked with the names of the wife and daughter of Wiliam Bradford. His wife Helen Sanchez was buried in 1876, in the same grave as their 5 month old daughter Anna, buried in 1868. After reading touching epitaphs such as these, both Luisa and I left wanting to know more about Manga's permanent residents.

Liusa has made representations to various government agencies trying to secure funding for further work, but so far her requests have fallen on deaf ears. She is not one to give up easily however, and welcomes any suggestions or offers of assistance. Her number is Cartagena 664 0820, and her email is

Glen David Short is a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

- B A C K -

Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short