Central America, Photography, Travel

The Legend of Vanushka the Gypsy of Xela, Guatemala

El Calvario Cemetery

If you haven’t been able to tell, I really like walking around in graveyards across the world. I think they give you an “in” to the culture that is most often overlooked.

El Calvario Cemetary in Xela, Guatemala is definitely worth a leisurely stroll if you have the time. The entire thing is incredibly lush and green with colorful, stacked tombs dotting the hillside. This is all overlooked by the massive Santa Maria volcano and lazy clouds hovering around the sides. A little surreal but if I was ever put into the ground, this would be the place to be.

As we were meandering our way though we came across a hidden cove with a very bizarre, old tomb with hundreds of flowers strewn about and messages of all types scribbled on the concrete. Either this was some new type of vandalism or we were missing out on something very important here. I walked around the sides of the sculpted tomb only to find very little. No date. No last name. There was nothing but pleading messages from devastated lovers and a very different name: Vanushka.

Vanushka's Tomb

My interest was piqued.

The history is as follows:
In the 1920s an Eastern European gypsy family immigrated to Guatemala and toured the countryside in the family circus. In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Vanushka became enamoured with a gentleman in the audience during one of her performances. The young gentleman, Javier, was from a prominent family in the area and followed suit with Vanushka and her beautiful performance.

After the show Javier caught up with Vanushka and they spent the night talking and walking around the circus grounds. This continued for the rest of the week and by the end, they confessed their undying love for each other. It was no secret on the circus grounds that this was happening. How could you miss two young love birds walking hand in hand all night long?

Javier’s family quickly caught on to what was going on. Javier refused to leave Vanushka’s side. They were in love and he was determined to see it through. In a rage, his father sent him to Spain to finish 4 years of university. With little authority, Javier had to leave.

When wishing Vanushka farewell the morning of his departure, she had to be ripped from his arms as his chaparone refused to let him stay any longer. He looked out the window and thought how the next 4 years of his life were going to be difficult ones. He could not wait to return to Vanushka’s arms.

Over the next few weeks Vanushka wasted away. She refused to sleep or eat. One night, with one last tear, she silently passed away from a broken heart.


Her family buried her in the El Calvario Cemetery where her tomb can be found today.

Legend has it that many years later a woman in a similar situation came to Vanushka’s tomb to weep and vent her sorrow. Shortly after her “talk” with Vanushka she was reunited with her one true love. It is said that if you leave flowers and a message of your sorrow for Vanushka that she will reunite you with the love in your life.

There are hundreds of messages written all over her tomb (in multiple languages) and with each one you can feel a pang of sorrow.

The story of Vanushka has become intertwined with the local culture. Singer/songwriter Alvaro Aguilar even wrote a song honoring Vanushka – you can find it here.

If you want to see the tomb it is a wee bit hidden. When entering the cemetery, if should be your first left into a little alleyway. It is a bit difficult to find but I’m sure if you ask someone they will be able to point you in the right direction.

El Calvario Cemetery, Xela, Guatemala

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17 thoughts on “The Legend of Vanushka the Gypsy of Xela, Guatemala”

    1. @Evan: It took a bit of digging to find all the information. And like with all legends, the story changes completely depending on who you ask.

    1. @Andi: I’m starting to think people think I’m morbid. I used to be scared of cemeteries but I quite enjoy walking around. Very peaceful.

  1. What a sad story! I’ve only visited famous cemeteries like Recoleta in Buenos Aires, but I can see how that would give you a good insight into different cultures.

  2. Awww, sad. We usually don’t visit cemeteries, but there’s an old one behind the house we’re staying at in London so we walked through it yesterday. Apparently a lot of the plots are dug down to include multiple family members… so caskets are buried on top of each other. Then there’s just one large headstone with a lot of space at the bottom that’s filled in when another family member dies and is buried there. I had never seen this before!

    Something else that was a little more jarring to see was the fact that the concrete decorative squares that covered each plot (and usually had the headstone attached) had sunk quite a ways into the ground!

    1. @Christy: I’ve seen the stacking bodies thing – it creeped me the fuck out. I know a few people who bought one plot but dug deep down. Shaun is telling me that he is super creeped out by the people who rent the spaces (since they cannot afford the plot) and then they exhume the bodies when you don’t pay rent.

  3. What a sad story but with beautiful photos. The only time I set my foot to graveyard taking photo was when I was in Boston walking through the freedom trail tour 🙂

  4. This is a great story. The first time I visited Xela a friend of mines who was my host took me to the cemetery to take a look at this tomb, I was amazed. I am a script writer and I will be writing a script about this story and bring it to the big screen. It does deserve to be expose to the world and be appreciated.

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