That the Earth hath its bubbles—its murky, forbidden places—is no secret to any traveler. Prisons, hospitals, crime scenes, concentration camps: the bleak aura of spots like these stems from the queer vibration that seems to hang in the air, the palpable sense of something happened here.
In the portioning-out of these dismal destinations, Latin America has been especially favored—which is to say, cursed. Sprung from an indigenous paganism, with a lively belief in the demonic; overlaid with a violent colonial order that left hundreds of decaying churches and villas; prostrated by a grisly 20th-century parade of dictators, narcos, and terroristic psychopaths, it’s a region steeped to its nostrils in blood, with all the foul corners a morbid-minded visitor could possibly hope for. A witches’ brew five centuries of bad history in the making.
If you’re one of the souls drawn to these foul corners, here’s a list of places whose evil presence is tangible. Some are home to the usual revenants; others exhibit a more 20th-century style of gruesomeness.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
1. Casa de La Tía Toña
Where: Mexico City, Mexico
What exactly happened in this house? Nothing good, to hear defeños tell it. For Mexico City residents, the story of Aunt Toña—of her house and her feral “children”—is a dark, cautionary tale of sadism, insanity, and murder.
Tía Toña, the story goes, was a queer old dowager who after her husband’s death was never quite right. Stricken by grief, she walled herself up in her isolated chateau in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Forest, to await her end. Then, a revelation. The city’s street urchins: they could live with her. Weren’t they and she equally forsaken? They would love her, be her babies.
Soon Toña’s house was swarming with adopted waifs. But events took a horrific turn. When the children, half-savage from neglect, began to mock the old widow, overrunning the mansion and torturing her with sadistic pranks, Toña snapped. What happened next varies. According to one account, the children, in an orgy of bloodlust, bludgeoned the old woman to death and wantonly smashed up the house, ransacking it for valuables. A darker version, however, tells that Toña herself brutally murdered the children, slitting their throats like swine. Then, in a paroxysm of horror at what she’d done, she took her own life.
Today Toña’s house has been bought and refurbished, and so is off-limits to trespassers. At dusk, though, it’s said the air still becomes strangely heavy, while atop the tower a haggard shadow can be seen, faint against the sky.
2. Witches’ Market
Where: La Paz, Bolivia
Llama fetuses and dried frogs; condor feathers and sun amulets. These are among the bizarre fetishes on sale in this weird corner of Bolivia’s administrative capital. Lest the spell cast by those creepy-crawlies prove insufficiently potent, you’ll also find mummified starfish and snakes, black penis candles, and more strange herbs than would fit in the Weird Sisters’ cauldron. But watch out: these tools of the sorcerer’s trade aren’t New Age curiosities. In Bolivia, they’re deadly serious.
Occult beliefs are an integral part of Andean culture. In every decent-size town in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, a mercado de brujas exists, with shop names like “The Powerful Hand” and “The Black Pearl” and a brisk traffic in magic—black as well as white. In Bolivia, the conjurers are Aymara women known as yatiris. Clad in traditional black bowler hats, shawls, and hoop skirts, they’re some of the last true witch doctors in South America, with power to hex their victims for love or revenge. Also on the menu: fortune-telling, fertility spells, and potions for all types of maladies.
A word of caution: when you go, don’t fiddle with the merchandise. The last thing you want is to make these ladies mad.
3. Olimpo Detention Center
Where: Buenos Aires, Argentina
What is it about sadists and warehouses? Is it the cavernous spaces that set their blood racing? The soundproof walls? The easily scrubbed floors? Doubtless something in these isolated spots acts as a turn-on, inciting thoughts of pliers and handcuffs, chains and gasoline.
The Olimpo was an abandoned tram station that saw brief use as a bus terminal. In 1978, it was converted by Argentina’s military into a CCDTyE—Clandestine Center for Detention, Torture, and Extermination—for use in the Videla dictatorship’s Dirty War against leftist subversives. In just five months, it “disappeared” some 700 persons, most of whose fate was to be tortured by guards who derived sexual zest from the spectacle and later hurled from airplanes into a shark-infested Atlantic. Neighbors would turn up their radios whenever they heard sounds coming from the barracks. Some things, it was understood, were best not looked into too closely.
The Olimpo was dismantled in January 1979. Today it’s been refurbished as a place of memory, its sheds disarmingly open for inspection. At first, the newly planted gardens and human-rights paraphernalia reassure. But then one sees the peeling paint and traplike metal doors, the seedy fluorescent lights and warehouses receding into the abyss—and shudders.
4. Pisagua Cemetery
Where: Pisagua, Chile
This ghostly patch of desert is one of the most forlorn spots in Chile. Clinging to a vertical rock face on a bleak stretch of coastline, it comprises acres of rickety wooden crosses, like needles, dispersed across a lonely inlet. Nearby, a gaping pit hints at horrors.
Pisagua has always been blighted. In the early 20th century, it served as a penal colony for homosexuals, a political prison, and a concentration camp, all in a desolate cove that dips suddenly into the waves. In 1990, a mass grave was unearthed in its cemetery, with the decomposed remains of 20 left-wing dissidents murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship. The bodies had been blindfolded and tortured, their hands and necks bound with wire. All had visible bullet wounds; one had been decapitated.
Today Pisagua’s pit remains open, with only a few plaques to keep it company. But no memorial can dispel the forsaken aura that envelops the graveyard, like the camanchaca or salt fogs that shroud it from the sea.
5. Casa Montecasino
Where: Medellín, Colombia
This five-million-dollar palace in Medellín’s tony El Poblado district isn’t open to visitors. The only way of stealing a peek at its dilapidated grandeur is by glad-handing the guard, who’s not overly amenable. Yet teenagers and locals are perpetually concocting ways to sneak in. Why? Because for 20 years, the house was a kind of command center for mass death in Colombia.
Montecasino was bought in the early 1980s by Fidel Castaño Gil, a notorious Medellín drug lord and founder of the “self-defense”—i.e., paramilitary—group known as the ACCU, which aimed to combat the FARC guerrillas who were robbing narcos like himself. Working with his brothers, Vicente and Carlos, Castaño would meet here with the demonic Pablo Escobar to plot countless assassinations, including the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in 1989 and the Mapiripán massacre in 1997. Later, after Castano and Escobar had a falling-out, it functioned as headquarters for Los Pepes, an alliance between paramilitaries and the rival Cali cartel to murder Escobar.
The house’s sinister history became public knowledge in 2016. That year, John Jairo Vásquez, a.k.a. “Popeye,” a vicious sicario who’d formerly worked for Escobar, gave reporters a tour of the empty mansion. His casual estimate of the number of killings cooked up there? 7,000-plus.
Today, the house seems peaceful, with its restaurant-grade kitchen, hidden strongboxes, and graceful spiral staircase. Its moldering Jacuzzis and wine cellar evoke no terrors. Yet recalling Popeye’s offhanded boast, one’s skin inevitably crawls:
“In no other house on Earth were conceived as many deaths as were plotted here.”
6. Fortaleza Coyotepe
Where: Masaya, Nicaragua
A gloomy ramp leads down to the bowels of this medieval-looking pile, which was the site of gruesome tortures under not one but two generations of the sadistic Somoza dynasty. High-voltage shocks, fingernail extraction with pliers, a ghastly stringing-up known as la garrucha: what the prisoners endured here doesn’t bear imagining.
Coyotepe was built in 1893, in large part to protect against threats of U.S. invasion. Fifty years later, the dictator Anastasio Somoza García ordered the construction of its sub-basement of underground chambers, as a gullet wherein his political enemies could be swallowed up. Until the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, that maw devoured thousands of Nicaraguans, whose footsteps and cries are still said to echo from the clammy, pitch-black cells. Later the fort was the scene of bizarre satanic rituals before being reconditioned as a tourist site in 1992.
Today, obscene graffiti covers the fortress’s walls, like a disease. Shine a flashlight, however, on the concrete, and you can still make out the blood spatter from the lives snuffed out in these dank cellars.
7. Palace of the Inquisition
Where: Mexico City, Mexico
In colonial Mexico, this imposing stone bastion was a source of dread. When its portals creaked open, locals would tremble to see the tumbrils rolling out in search of heretics—or, worse, carrying living fuel to feed the auto-da-fe.
The Inquisition came to Mexico in 1571. Its mission: to impose religious conformity on an unruly colony, full of pagan Indians and violent riff-raff. At first, its victims were Jewish converts to Christianity—highly suspect in the eyes of the Holy See—but later this expanded to include heretics, women accused of witchcraft, magicians who’d made pacts with the Devil. When religious panics broke out, inquisitors would round up hundreds of misfits, including scholars and homosexuals, and throw them in dungeons, where the recalcitrant among them would be tortured. In 1649, 12 townsmen were burned at the stake for “Judaizing,” in the largest auto-da-fe ever staged in the New World.
Today, legends about the palace reflect its dark history. One holds that in the 1960s, workers in nearby Avenida Brasil dug up hundreds of charred bones from a mass grave. Others tell of torture chambers in underground tunnels, or headless monks wandering the streets.
Exaggerated? Perhaps. But there can be no mistaking the inscription over the entryway, which voices the Inquisition’s cold fanaticism: “Rise up, O God, and defend Thy holy cause.”
8. Hotel Eden
Where: La Falda, Argentina
The past weighs heavily on this crumbling hotel, whose disquieting façade and eerie staircase would be right at home in The Shining. The past here means not just dead children and financial ruin, but ties to the 20th century’s most nefarious criminals.
The Hotel Eden was built in 1897, in the hills outside Córdoba. Its owners, Walter and Ida Eichhorn, were a wealthy German-Argentine family who turned it into a stopover for Old World dignitaries: diplomats, heads of state, even Albert Einstein. Then, in 1937, the Eichhorns received a signed photo from yet another illustrious personage: Adolf Hitler.
Turns out, Der Fuhrer was very close indeed with the Eichhorns, who’d funneled millions of dollars to the Nazis from sympathizers in Argentina. They also proudly displayed a Nazi eagle on the hotel’s façade, while broadcasting Hitler’s speeches from an antenna on the roof. Such ties caused the property to be seized by the Argentine government in 1945, bringing the family to economic ruin. Yet the hotel’s sinister aura remained.
Today, visitors to the Eden speak of a strange chill to the rooms. In the broken bath fixtures, the cracked skylights open to the wind and rain, ghost-hunters seek hints of the paranormal—including the Eichhorns’ daughter, who reportedly died on the premises. But no spectral sightings can equal the real, flesh-and-blood infamy that transpired here, nor mitigate one of the blackest episodes in Argentina’s history.