Thursday, November 15, 2012

El Cementerio de Tulcán

A face emerges from a hedge in the Cementerio de Tulcan
In December of the year 2000 I made my first of what would be 11 winters spent in South America.  An old college friend of mine and I flew from Guatamala City to Quito via Houston as there are no direct flights between the two countries.  Ecuador is small by South American standards but it is incredibly diverse, so I would have to return the following year to revisit and explore this magical country further.
A water channel and pool at 400 year old
Hacienda Ocampo in Cotacachi
From Quito we made our way north, via Otavalo, Ibarra, El Angel, and Tulcán.  Excursions to high altitude Andean reserves near the Equator in terrain called Paramo required tall rubber boots and good rain gear, but the duress was greatly rewarded by otherworldly landscapes.
Frailejones, of the Genus Espeletia in Reserva Ecologico El Angel
Burning Tires block the Panamerican Highway outside El Angel
There was a general strike over an increase in fuel costs and the Panamerican Highway, which is the main north-south artery of the country became the main target for the protests.  Block this highway and you slow the country down considerably.  After the windshield in a taxi we had hired to take us from Otavalo to Cotacachi was smashed by a rock we had to walk several miles around lines of rocks and logs that had been rolled on to the road.  The army would chase people off, and roll the rocks out of the way.  The people would just roll them back as they moved along.  Whenever a section of road opened up we would advance our way north.  Needless to say there were very few tourists along the way.  The last leg of the trip north from El Angel to Tulcán was blocked by a line of burning tires.  Trucks and buses needed to get through took insane detours down mud mired dirt roads with the assistance of the army.

Just 7 kilometers from the Colombian border lies the hill town of Tulcán.  It is the highest town in Ecuador, and has a climate that qualifies as an eternal Spring, which pretty much means cold and wet a lot of the time.  Our primary reason for coming here were pictures I had seen years earlier of a fantastic cemetery festooned in clipped topiary, acres of it.  This is one of the largest topiary gardens in the World.  But what really makes this place special are the unique forms that result from the influence on its creator by the culture of the Ecuadorian Andes.
Sculpted arches and tunnel invite exploration
The cemetery was commenced in 1932 to replace another on that was badly damaged by an earthquake.  Built on 8 hectares of land, the calcareous soils on the site make it perfect from growing Cypress, which were trained and sculpted by a man named Josè Maria Franco in to hedges and archways, animals and people, and giant heads.  The designs range from local indigenous folklore to the exotic with figures from Roman and Egyptian mythology.   The topiary in the cemetery has been called 'Esculptura en Verde del Campo Santo' which translates to mean 'Sculpture in the Green of the Holy Field'.

Poles and lines are used to guide
the trimmers

Topiary requires clipping at least twice a year, and in a garden of this size a small crew pretty much has to start over once they get to the other end.  Sr. Franco did a lot of clipping over the decades as the cypress grew larger and fuller.  Thus his relationship with the garden was all encompassing.  He is buried here and the epitaph on his crypt calls his creation "a cemetery so beautiful it invites one to die." We opted out of that idea and instead spent the better part of two days going over and over the many paths marveling at the work.

His son Benigno Salvador Franco Carranco and a man named Lucio Reina took over after José Franco took his own invitation seriously and passed away in 1985 at the age of 85.  Sr. Reina was quoted as saying "This has been my life.  Each figure I do is part of my life.  I am very happy to have done something for my Tulcan.  This is not an artificial thing, even the dead are happy here."

The signature pieces in the cemetery are the giant heads of indigenous people created by his predecessor.  They are unlike any I've seen in other parts of the world and were the principal inspiration for me wanting to come here.  There are also wonderful hedges carved with bas reliefs of cornucopias and flowers, connected by soaring arches and dark tunnels.
Giant heads line the main road dividing the cemetery.
A row of fantastic shapes
We came upon a crew of three men with tall ladders and old fashioned clipping sheers working hard on a towering hedge.  They erected poles at the corners of hedges and strung lines to guide the trimming.   From the quiet and methodical way they worked it looked as if they had been doing it for a very long time.  Perhaps someday they will be invited to die here.
A view from the roof of one of the crypts
This magnificent hedge contains a dramatic series of high arches creating a tunnel like passageway

The hedges in places are deeply incised with meaningful designs
In the newer part of the cemetery the hedges are thinner and there are topiary statues of people performing tasks from every day life.  It isn't as exciting as the older parts but isn't that true of cemeteries all over the world.  With time they will change and perhaps become more venerable, but I think I was being jaded after spending hours in the older areas.
A later part of the cemetery

A group of thickly dressed people gaze off over the valley to Colombia
A crouching figure perhaps trying to stay warm
 A menagerie of totemic animals from the region emerge from many of the hedges.  There are birds and amphibians and even a giant Armadillo.
A stylized Parrot

The hind end of an Armadillo
A giant Turtle sits on a hedge

And what's a topiary garden without one of these?
Another dream fulfilled
I feel blessed to be crazy enough to make the effort to get to visit such places.  I have one very tall and neglected topiary boxwood in my garden that is lucky if it gets trimmed once a year.  I bought an old photograph of the cemetery in a time warped photography studio in the town from an old man who makes large scale prints from the original negatives.  It is framed and hangs over the desk in my office.
An old photo of the cemetery hanging in my office
While we were at the cemetery we met a lovely couple who lived in Tulcàn but originally came from Cali in Colombia to the north.  They had moved here with their son because they felt it was no longer safe to live in Cali at that time as Cali was a center for drug cartels.  We were so close to the border that they invited us to take a trip to a beautiful church built over a deep canyon to the east of Ipiales, the Colombian town on the other side of the border.  We were amazed that we could just walk across the bridge over the river dividing the countries and hop in a taxi for the scenic trip to the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de las Lajas without any border control.  We didn't even need a passport.
Santuario de Nuestra Señora de las Lajas
This Gothic basilica was built over a period of 30 years and was completed in 1949 on the spot where a vision of the Virgin Mary was reported in the 18th Century.

I was now bitten by the bug to explore Colombia, but I didn't travel there until the winter of 2007-8 when it was much safer.  It is a magnificent country and I highly recommend exploring it.  When I reached Ipiales across the border from Ecuador it completed a journey covering the entire length of the Andes from Ushuaia on the Straights of Magellan on Tierra del Fuego in the far south to the Caribbean coast of Colombia at Santa Marta.  What an epic adventure spanning nearly two years in total!  May the adventures continue.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey


  1. Thanks so much for such an entertaining and enjoyable post! I love the topiary, and the dedication taken to create, amazing location.

  2. C'est fou !! totally crazy place. Never heard about this before.

  3. Thanks for showing us !!! sooooo awesome !