Atacama Desert, Catacombs, Cemeteries, Churches, El Callao, Epecuen, Fortresses, Insane Asylums, Paranormal, Santa Muerte, Tepito, Xochimilco
Forget Dracula’s Castle and the Tower of London. If you really want to give yourself the shivers in some of the world’s weirdest, most out-of-the-way places this fall, these lonely corners of Latin America are downright unnerving. Ruined hotels, abandoned mental hospitals, temples of violent death cults: grim locations like these aren’t for the faint of heart. The sanest thing would be to stay away altogether…unless, that is, you just can’t resist delving into the gruesome underside of one of the planet’s most mysterious continents—and discovering what might await you there.
Only, don’t say you haven’t been warned.
1. La Noria Cemetery
Where: Atacama Desert, Chile
Immediately you feel it: the sense, as you pass the rusted gate of this appalling boneyard in the middle of the planet’s driest desert, that you’re not alone. Maybe it’s the buzzards—did that one just wink at you? Or maybe it’s the scores of open coffins, many with their tenants’ remains strewn across the hardpan, picked at by the moaning wind. Whatever the case, don’t linger too long: this isn’t a place you want to get caught out after sundown.
In the 1800s, La Noria was a lonely saltpeter-mining town whose inmates were subjected to unspeakable cruelty. Slave-like conditions prevailed, even for children. When the workers died, they were tossed in shallow, tumbledown graves and forgotten. But after the settlement was shuttered in the 1920s, strange happenings were reported. Objects would change location when no one was looking. A persistent, barely audible whisper filled the air. Most ominously, at night the cemetery would suddenly fill with presences, their gibbering voices heard for miles.
Today, locals get visibly nervous when visitors ask about La Noria. Usually they aim to stop them from going. You might want to listen.
Tip: La Noria is remote. To get there, you’ll need to rent a car and walk some two miles through the desert. Take precautions: the closest outpost of civilization is a gas station 13 miles away.
2. Real Felipe Fortress
Where: Lima, Peru
Sadistic: there’s no other word for the dungeons in this gloomy 18th-century chamber of horrors. U-shaped and claustrophobically narrow, they forced prisoners—mostly republicans who fought against the Spanish Crown during Peru’s Wars of Independence—to remain standing the whole time they were interned, even when sleeping. On the way to them, the citadel’s inmates had to pass through a labyrinth of asphyxiating corridors, where at any moment they were prone to be doused with boiling water. Life expectancy for captives: 60 days.
With installations this macabre, it’s no wonder the Real Felipe, in Lima’s grim El Callao district, scores high on the paranormal-activity scale. The manifestations run the gamut: pale women with windswept hair walking the tower drawbridge, suicidal soldiers hurling themselves from the parapets, demonic children flitting through passageways. Looming over it all is the bleak shadow of the fort itself, its outer walls the incarnation of blind, brute force.
Trigger warning: If you’re liable to panic in tight places, the fortress is not for you.
Tip: Nocturnal tours offer the best ambiance for experiencing the Real Felipe’s creepiness. Several local services have the details.
3. Santa Muerte Shrine
Where: Mexico City, Mexico
Devotees and sociologists have tried to normalize it. But Mexico’s cult of La Santa Muerte—Sacred Death—has been tied to ritual murders and several of the country’s bloodthirstiest narcos. This bizarre shrine, in Mexico City’s dicey Tepito neighborhood, renders homage to the dark goddess, in images that recall both the Virgin Mary and the Grim Reaper.
The Santa Muerte cult has its roots in Aztec culture, where death was venerated in huge annual festivals. Forced underground during the Spanish Conquest, it reemerged in the 20th century as Mexico found itself bled to the bone by narco violence. Today, it’s the fastest-growing religion in the hemisphere, with some 10 to 12 million adherents, principally poor and working-class Mexicans. In dark masses for La Huesuda (“The Bony One”), these votaries bring beer, food, cigarettes, all manner of offerings to gain protection, frequently from the law, along with safe passage to the afterlife.
The cult has been officially condemned by both the Catholic Church and the Mexican government. How sinister is it? Judge for yourself when you go—preferably by day.
Tip: Visiting the shrine itself is safe, though the surrounding barrio is iffy. Go in a taxi, or with a guide who knows the area.
4. Hotel del Salto
Where: San Antonio del Tequendama, Colombia
Built for Colombia’s elites in the 1920s and perched precariously over a 500-foot waterfall, this eerie hotel would be right at home in The Shining. So numerous are the stories of deranged guests leaping from its parapets that it’s been branded “Hotel of the Suicides.”
The Hotel del Salto began life as a train station, morphing in 1928 into a playground for Bogota’s beautiful people. Then, in the 50s, things started to go wrong. The river got polluted. Guests stopped coming. More and more visitors were dying, in what some said was a gruesome reenactment of a ritual from the 1500s, wherein the indigenous Muisca people would leap to their demise to avoid capture by the conquering Spanish. When the hotel finally was boarded up in 1990, the aura of death surrounding it only intensified.
Today the building has been refurbished as a museum. Yet the same aura of murk and darkness still envelops it, like the evil-smelling fog that boils up from the falls below.
5. Durán Sanitarium
Where: Cartago, Costa Rica
Tuberculosis clinic, insane asylum, orphanage, prison: Costa Rica’s most haunted address has never known happy times. Closed after a volcanic eruption in 1973 and left to decay thereafter, it’s a place of echoing hallways and debris-filled rooms, where the general state of abandonment reflects the vanished inmates’ hopelessness and pain. This helps explain the ghostly sightings there, which include nuns, little girls, and a mysterious monk glimpsed through the windows in the small hours of the night.
The sanitarium is plagued with a century’s worth of bad vibes. Founded in 1918 by an eminent physician whose daughter suffered from tuberculosis, it was originally intended as a clinic for a disease that too often proved fatal. New vaccines caused it to be shuttered in 1963, after which the property was used to house homeless children and violent criminals. Today, a deep disquiet takes hold of all who wander its dark, illogical corridors, or shudder at the dead children’s painted handprints on the infirmary wall.
6. Presbítero Maestro Cemetery
Where: Lima, Peru
This is no American-style memorial park: no peaceful green lawns to evoke genteel thoughts of repose. Rather, it’s a vast and terrifying city of the dead, a citadel whose mausoleums and marble crypts morph after dark into one of the most spine-chilling necropolises on the planet.
Presbítero Maestro was inaugurated in 1808, after the Archbishop of Lima ordered its construction to head off an attack of pestilence in the city. (Back then, the custom was to bury the dead in catacombs in church cellars, which at the time were overflowing.) Over the next 200 years, it became filled with Peruvians from all walks of life, from presidents and military heroes to paupers and criminals. Not all these inmates have remained quiet.
Consider, for example, the case of “el niño Ricardito,” the elfish child-spirit who’s been spotted darting among the tombs, demonically laughing. Or the grave robbers who for years operated an appalling black market of cadavers for medical-school dissections. Or the dead children whose photos hang in one of the cemetery’s columbaria, their eyes staring eerily at the viewer.
Presbítero Maestro is not for the skittish. Even its marble angels seem to bristle as they overlook the outnumbering dead.
Tip: Nighttime tours of the graveyard are available several times per month. If you insist on going, this is the way to do it.
7. Ushuaia Prison
Where: Ushuaia, Argentina
Bleak stone corridors and geometrically receding cellblocks; chipped paint and leaking water. This is the icy nightmare of the Museo Marítimo y Presidio, the abandoned penitentiary in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the planet. Present-day guards call it “an evil place.”
Ushuaia’s penal colony was founded in 1902, in an attempt to populate the isolated reaches of Tierra del Fuego. Dangerous criminals were banished to this “Argentine Siberia” to tear a hard-scrabble settlement from the dead land. At night, their cries would echo from the dank cells, claustrophobic and crowded like some infernal Borgesian trap.
Today the inmates are no more; the prison closed in 1947. Still, it’s possible to feel their malevolent aura in the abysmal vaults and echoing halls. Two in particular still terrify: the violent, cop-killer anarchist Simón Radowitzky, and a criminally insane child murderer named Shorty Big Ears.
8. Island of the Dolls
Where: Xochimilco, Mexico
Severed limbs, blank eyes, decapitated heads: the threatening dolls that gaze from the trees on this sinister island are the stuff of childhood nightmares. That they’re a kind of fetishistic homage to a real dead girl—well, only makes them that much worse.
In the 1950s, Julián Santana Barrera left his wife and child and moved to an artificial island in the Xochimilco canals, south of downtown Mexico City. Not long after, he came across a young girl drowned at the water’s edge—or did he only imagine it? Howsoever, troubled that he wasn’t able to save her life, he became terrified the island was haunted by lost souls—hers and others’. To ward them off, he started collecting dolls, thousands of them, nailing them to trees and so transforming the island into something ghastly. In 2001, he was found drowned in the exact spot he purportedly encountered the dead girl.
The island was never intended to become a tourist spot. Today, though, morbid visitors still come in trajineras, flat-bottomed gondolas. You can, too—if you can find a ferryman willing to take you.
9. Church of San Francisco
Where: Lima, Peru
The catacombs and ossuary beneath this 17th-century baroque horror are right out of a Gothic novel. Lined with the bones of 70,000 dead Peruvians, their dark, claustrophobic passages are punctuated with open graves and wells full of skulls.
In the colonial period, San Francisco was the jewel of Lima architecture: a masterpiece in the mudéjar (Andalusian Moorish) style, complete with Nicaraguan-cedar cupola, ornate choir stalls, artwork from the studios of Rubens and Zubarán, and a crumbling library of 25,000 hand-printed books. Yet beneath this lavishness lay the unspeakable: its cellars, in line with the customs of the day, were choked with buried corpses, causing authorities to fear an outbreak of bubonic plague.
The catacombs were walled off in 1808. In 1943, after being stumbled upon by workers, they became an object of ghoulish fascination, as visitors found a perverse thrill in breathing their thick dust of human remains.
If you go, don’t stray from the official tour path. Tourists have reportedly gotten lost in secret tunnels, which are said to lead to the fearsome Office of the Inquisition nearby.
10. Villa Epecuén
Where: Carhué, Argentina
How will the world look without us? Epecuén affords an eerie, apocalyptic glimpse. Destroyed by a freak flood over 30 years ago, this bleached-out ghost town of petrified trees and abandoned slaughterhouses is one of the Earth’s uncanniest places.
1985 was the fateful year. That November, following months of heavy rain, the massive salt lake adjoining the vacation spot 400 miles southwest of Buenos Aires flooded, filling the streets with 30 feet of water. In 2009 the waters receded, but by then all that was left was what Epecuén’s scanty visitors see today: skeletal brushwood, corroded auto bodies, salt-crusted hulks. A place of frozen stillness, ghostly white beneath a wintry sun. That a single, 89-year-old resident has returned to live among the wreckage only adds to the desolation.
Epecuén sports no supernatural aura. Haunted it isn’t. Haunting, though? Most certainly.
Tip: Epecuén offers no food or lodging. Tours, however, can be organized from nearby Carhué, a onetime rival village some two miles south along the lakeshore.