Tierra Santa, Buenos Aires: a theme park like no other

Tierra Santa, Buenos Aires: a theme park like no other

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By Heidi Fuller-Love
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Who would have thought you could relive the resurrection of Christ and pay respects at the Wailing Wall in Argentina; Tierra Santa, Buenos Aires, is Latin America‘s first ever religious theme park. Heidi Fuller-Love went along for some spiritual fun.

“If you’re a nun you get in free,” says Frederico, my tango teacher turned Tierra Santa guide for the day. After a half hour ride on the number 56 bus from Buenos Aires, we pull up outside the park.

I’m expecting to see serious faces and hear muttered prayers, but the city’s votive funfair has a holiday atmosphere. A replica of Golgotha – complete with three plaster statues nailed to three huge crosses – stands opposite a pier lined with food stands selling bulky chorizo-stuffed choripan sandwiches and people fishing off the edge. “Welcome to Buenos Aires,” Frederico laughs at the sight of my vaguely scandalised expression.

Opened in 2001, the city’s version of Jerusalem covers a seven-hectare plot of land and was built when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. A few days before my arrival, the white smoke had shot up the Vatican chimney signalling the election of Latin America’s first pontiff – and already there are Pope Francis key rings, cuff links and furry dice on sale from the scattering of stands at the entrance.

Passing the Roman soldiers with drawn swords guarding the gate, we enter the park. Life-size plaster donkeys stand alongside stiffly swaying plastic palm trees with trunks like string-laced sausages. Attendants dressed in biblical gear hand us leaflets telling us the times of the different shows. It is mid-afternoon, but the park is almost empty. “Everyone comes for the Resurrections, but it’s out of season now, so there are only performances after sunset. People will show up later,” Frederico explains apologetically.

We watch the first show – a group of animatronic wise men bending on badly oiled knees to worship baby Jesus as a dramatic “Hallelujah” chorus blasts out over the sound system – and then wander up a narrow alley to the top of Golgotha hill to admire views over the ochre domes of Tierra Santa, fringed by the glittering high-rise blocks of Buenos Aires’ suburbs. An aeroplane from neighbouring Jorge Newbery airport flies noisily overhead, wings grazing the air just a few metres above a statue of the Virgin Mary hugging her crucified son.

A group of veiled women dash along the street beneath us in a clashing cacophony of tinsel and sequins. “The belly dance show!” Frederico exclaims. He chivvies me though a confusing labyrinth of alleys towards a central square with a stage set up in one corner. En route we pass several churches, a synagogue and a mosque – Frederico tells me this is because the park “wants to maintain an open dialogue with all faiths”.

There are only a dozen people watching, but the belly dancers give a lively performance, culminating in a rattle of midriff coins around Frederico, their teacher, who has been coerced to join in the dance.

By now it’s late afternoon and we’re feeling peckish. We hesitate between the vine-fringed terrace of Noah’s Ark and the Salem Pizzeria. “Fishes or loaves?” Frederico jokes. Eventually we chose the cheaper Bagdad Cafe where we sate our hunger with pork and salad stuffed pitta bread and ladles of creamy hummus.

After our snack we head for Genesis, an extravagant light-and-sound show where an animatronic Adam and Eve – complete with fig leaves and surrounded by stiffly animated hippos and giraffes – act out the seven-day creation of the universe in just twenty minutes.

As we emerge, blinking, into the dimming light, long shadows are cast by  plastic palm trees over a group bowed before the replica Wailing Wall; there’s only half an hour to go before the Resurrection and the park is starting to fill up. In no time we are surrounded by seething, expectant crowds. There are proud parents with small children whose shiny shoes mirror their neatly combed hair and couples who fidget and take pictures of each other striking tragic poses beneath the mount where Jesus is due to rise.

When the chorus from Handel’s Messiah booms out over the park and the twelve-metre-high statue of Jesus rises creakily from behind a rock, there are howls and cries among the crowd. Frederico, next to me, is on his feet and cheering as if he’s at a football match. The animated statue blinks several times and swivels slowly, blessing the four cardinal points. As our saviour sinks behind the rock to a last chorus of “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” a plump woman with a walking stick bursts into tears.

That was it – the pinnacle and highlight of this bizarre and eclectic Christianity-themed park. As we file out into the dark night lit by the scented flames of mobile choripan stands, Frederico asks: “Did you enjoy Tierra Santa?” with a grin that dares me to deny it.

“I think it’s one of those things that gets lost in translation,” I cautiously reply.

Explore more of Argentina with the Rough Guide to Argentina, or take a big trip across this continent with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.