Much more than giant shrubbery

The first thing you notice when you walk onto the cemetery grounds in the small Northern Ecuadorian city of Tulcan is that the topiaries this place is famous for are big. Real big. Like more than 12 feet tall and stretching for at least 200 feet to either side of the entrance (and that was only the front part of the cemetery). I could tell right away that this place would live up to the hype.

Tulcan Cemetery Entrance | © Ernest Scott Drake
Tulcan Topiaries | © Ernest Scott Drake

Where it all began – God’s Altar

Walking around and inside parts of the oldest section of topiary, called God’s Altar, I was amazed at how farsighted Jose Franco, the creator of these works, was when he started this project. He was the Tulcan Municipal Park Director when the city dedicated the new cemetery in 1932. He noticed that the soil on the 20 acre site had high levels of chalk, which made it perfect for growing cypress trees. He began to plant cypress  in 1936 and, as they grew, carved figures out of their branches. The rest, as they say, is history.

The figures in God’s Altar run the gamut from animals to religious figures to Incan statues. Strolling the grounds, it was easy to lose contact with the rest of the cemetery due to the dense foliage. It gave me a very Alice in Wonderland feeling to be around some of these figures and I wondered if the Red Queen or the Rabbit was going to jump out from the hedge.

God's Altar, Tulcan Cemetery, Ecuador | © Ernest Scott Drake
Topiary Tunnel, Tulcan Cemetery, Ecuador | © Ernest Scott Drake
80 year old topiary, Tulcan Cemetery, Ecuador | © Ernest Scott Drake

And the Topiaries Spread – Memorial Park

In 1987, Tulcan native Lucio Reina started work in the second section of topiary, called the Memorial Park. The best view of the Memorial Park is from the top of the huge burial niches that surround the garden on three sides. While climbing on top of these structures seemed really odd to me, it is a common practice and no one batted an eye. In fact, families were on top of all the structures getting souvenir photos of themselves taken overlooking the gardens.

Newer Portion of the Tulcan Cemetery | © Ernest Scott Drake
Freshly Trimmed Topiary | © Ernest Scott Drake

The style of Memorial Park is quite a bit different than the older God’s Altar. Rather than having the topiary figures close together creating a maze-like area, the park is organized into multiple sections surrounded by topiary hedges. This arrangement allows for the cemetery to use the enclosed land for burials much more effectively than the original section.

Fortunately, this style does not detract at all from the experience. There are arches, statues, and a wide variety of topiary cut into the tops of the hedges dividing the area. There are also a number of great stand alone topiary figures on the outskirts of the park.

Topiary examples from Memorial Park, Tulcan Cemetery, Ecuador | © Ernest Scott Drake
New Growth in the Memorial Park, Tulcan Cemetery, Ecuador | © Ernest Scott Drake

Still under construction

The East side of the cemetery has the beginnings of topiary art as well. This work started about 10 years ago and the plants are just starting to be mature enough to start the slow process to transform hedges into figures. Even without many figures, this section is worth a visit to see the carved arches and the towers of cypress that will become the statues of the future.

This part has only been growing since 2000. Not bad progress | © Ernest Scott Drake|
A New Archway, Tulcan Cemetery, Ecuador | © Ernest Scott Drake

In recognition of the outstanding work overseen by Jose Franco, the cemetery was designated a Cultural Heritage and Nature Tourism site by the Ecuadorian government in 1984. The cemetery was renamed the “Jose María Azael Franco Guerrero” Municipal Cemetery in 2005.

After nearly 85 years, the cemetery, with its’ 300 plus topiary figures, is a singular destination for visitors to the region. Jose Franco’s topiary legacy fully delivers on his desire to create a place “so beautiful that it invites one to die.”