“There is no other place like this on earth” said Judas Iscariot, chatting to me intermittently between gurgling communications on his walkie talkie. This, however, was not Judas the disciple everybody loves to hate, but merely a park official masquerading as him. Betrayal he may have committed some 1,967 years ago, but Judas was not betraying the truth that day: if there is another theme park like Tierra Santa, it’s probably not on earth.
Tierra Santa was proud to become the world’s first religious theme park in 2000. Contrary to the images that suddenly flow to ones brain when the term ‘theme park’ is mentioned, Tierra Santa has no roller-coasters or slippery slides, no candy floss or slush puppies, no Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. Rather, it is divided into 37 simulations of the most important events in the bible, amongst them the creation, the birth, the crucifixion and the resurrection. All sounds a bit boring? I can assure you it is anything but.
Approaching Tierra Santa, huddled models of religious icons, sheep and palm trees leave only an infinitesimal indication of the confusion that is to ensue. Once you have passed the disgruntled ticket vendors dressed as Mary and Joseph, you start to get a better idea. But it is not until you have entered the main concourse of the park that you truly know what a surreal treat you have stumbled upon.
While Tierra Santa largely comprises of faux streets modelled on Jerusalem, its focus is a large recreation of the Holy Mount where, true to biblical history, a life-size effigy of a crucified Jesus sits. Perhaps more open to historical debate is Tierra Santa’s interpretation of the resurrection: every half an hour a 25m high statue of The Good Shepard himself gloriously rises out of The Holy Mount, towering above the park to the rapturous glee of all in attendance.
The resurrection is best experienced from the top of the Holy Mount at sunset, not just because the pre-recorded backing track of Latin choral singers is most audible there and then but also thanks to the great spectacle on offer: festoon lights switching on as the twilight envelops mini-Jerusalem, children playing in the streets, evening festivities beginning, Jesus rising splendidly against the backdrop of the ebbing sun and the delayed 4.30 LAN flight from Santiago landing softly on the adjacent Jorge Newbery airport landing strip.
Like we so often hear preached in church, true beauty is on the inside. Tierra Santa is one exponent of that ideology. Within the artificial confines of the Holy mount lies, for me, the jewel in the crown: the creation show!
Introduced by Hollywood-esque tones and a green laser show, suddenly the creation is alive with the sights and sounds of Eden: electronic gorillas, robotic lions, motorized giraffes and all the other animals under the sun co-existing in mechanical harmony. In a hung-over daze, this journalist was subconsciously transported to another fertile, idyllic world. Darwinism aside, there were times when I thought to myself: “this is truly brilliant”. And that was all before the show’s ‘piece de la résistance’. The dramatic dénouement takes the shape of two mannequins (Adam and Eve) craning themselves from a dry ice haze at the front of Eden as the music crescendos and the beauty of the creation has been given full justice.
After all this excitement, a voracious appetite was worked up.No miraculous feeding of the 5,000 or turning water into wine was necessary as restaurants are aplenty. Skipping the ‘baptism buffet’, ‘sacramental smorgasbord’ and ‘gentile goulash’, my friends and I decided on having a kebab. The ‘St John Shawerma’ went down a treat with some ‘Adam’s apple juice’ as we watched an authentic Middle Eastern dance show.
Leaving the park, glowing in dark night sky, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgia for mini-Jerusalem and I wanted to stay there with its merry songs, low crime rate and happy people. It is all too easy to be sardonic about an idea that engenders such a paradox: staunch Catholicism and theme park frivolity combining to bring in the tourist dollar. However, the kindness on the tour guides’ faces, the modesty of many attractions and the aura of the place indicate that Tierra Santa just is not about that.
Another paradox that initially confused me was the presence of a Synagogue and a Mosque in this Catholic theme park. But it has since clicked. In an age of intolerance and terror, it is so refreshing to be somewhere where ethos and eagerness outweigh sheer adherence to detail. Plus, it’s bloody funny. I thoroughly recommend visiting the world’s first religious theme park – there really is no altar-native.
Tierra Santa is open Friday-Sunday and public holidays. For more information including opening hours and prices, visit www.tierrasanta-bsas.com.ar