A sacrilegious mash-up of Christianity and Disneyland, Tierra Santa is South America’s weirdest theme park
An army of human-sized plastic Christs. Centurions posing for selfies with giggling teens. Jets howling overhead as they exit Buenos Aires’ main airport.
Fake plastic trees, tacky souvenir shops, excited nuns, holy animatronics, sacred pizza, plaster animals, ridiculous rides… and a 40ft robo-Jesus that rises from the grave once an hour, every hour.
Come all ye faithful to Tierra Santa – the world’s most absurd theme park, where the cheerful tastelessness of Disneyland collides head-on with devout Catholicism.
Stairway to heaven
Tierra Santa (Holy Land) is a theme park on the edge of Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires.
The park opened its pearly gates in 2000, and is built on a sprawling 17-acre plot that used to be a football pitch.
The site was originally earmarked for a traditional fun park, with roller coasters, water slides and other thrilling attractions you’d expect to find in Universal Studios or the UK’s Alton Towers.
But planning permission was blocked by local councillors, who feared the site’s close proximity to Jorge Newbery Airfield made it a health and safety nightmare.
Not to be deterred, Armando Cavaliei – head of the powerful Commerce Employees’ Union, which owns the land – came up with a cunning plan.
In a move of godlike genius, Cavaliei proposed building a religious-themed ‘experience’ to celebrate Jesus’ life, educate local kids, and affirm visitors’ faith.
By playing to the Argentine love of religious festivals and celebrations such as the Día de la Virgen de Luján, Cavaliei sealed the deal and won the support of the trade unions, private sector and church.
His campaign was so successful that Cavaleli even persuaded Pope Francis – then Archbishop of Buenos Aires – to inaugurate the park.
Now over 20,000 visitors flock to Tierra Santa each year, particularly during the Easter season when queues of pilgrims form outside, patiently waiting to pay homage to the park’s animatronic Saviour.
But Argentina’s Jesusworld retains the honour of being Latin America’s first religious theme park, and a mecca for cheesy attractions, oddball theatrics and shameless kitsch.
Tierra Santa is a plastic and plaster recreation of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Visitors can walk the dusty streets – which feel like the backlot of a B-movie studio – and check out 37 staged scenes that bring key biblical stories to life.
In a 2-hour visit, you can skip from the beginning of time and the creation described in Genesis, all the way to the New Testament and Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
And if you’re a nun… rejoice! You have an automatic lifetime pass to skip the queues and enjoy Tierra Santa for free.
Although Tierra Santa is framed as a theme park, it has little in common with Disneyland or Universal Studios.
There are no rides to thrill the crowds, aside from a solitary merry-go-round – the Rotating Ark of Joseph – where garish hobby horses have been replaced by camels and donkeys.
As the roundabout turns at a pedestrian pace, a discordant version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ plays on loop.
The Texas Six Flags Titan this ain’t.
But to enjoy Tierra Santa, you’ll need to become immune to the sad expression on the faces of children as they peer over the park’s boundary wall into the enormous water park next door.
Given a choice, I know where most kids would rather be.
God’s own theme park
The main meat of Tierra Santa is its staged biblical scenes, which are brought to life by over 500 life-sized statues of Romans, Jesuits and other era-appropriate figures.
The scenes draw on a wide variety of stories and passages from the Good Book.
The story of Genesis is a light and music extravaganza, where visitors witness the 7-day creation of the universe in 20 minutes.
Visiting the show feels like stepping into one of Buenos Aires’ banging nightclubs, but with animatronic lions and hippos instead of gyrating podium dancers.
The action is soundtracked by funky African beats and slick bass guitar, and the story of creation is narrated by a man who sounds like a veteran of Hollywood blockbuster trailers.
Elsewhere, the Last Supper is camp fun, with 13 mechanical figures that shuffle stiffly in their seats as Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ rattles through a hidden boombox.
The highlight is when overexcited tourists sneak under the barrier ropes to join the feast and have their photo taken with Jesus and his disciples. (Or flip devil horns behind plastic Judas.)
But while it’s all good, clean fun, parents of young children should be wary when exploring Tierra Santa.
The gory statues that show Jesus being abused at the hands of the Romans are unflinchingly cruel, and youngsters may be upset by the gallons of fake blood being spilled.
The entertainment in Tierra Santa kicks up a notch around Easter, when a bearded Christ-alike enacts the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and stumbles through the fake streets towards plastic Golgotha.
Visitors can take turns helping JC to shoulder his crucifix, but they can’t stop the blood-splattered prophet getting whipped by centurions.
Jesus’ doppelgänger is eventually crucified for the crowds. To a strict daily timetable, of course.
Easter and holiday weekends also see special events staged around the park, including belly dancing and puppet shows.
There are even carpentry demonstrations for anyone interested in what Jesus’ adoptive father did for a living.
Tierra Santa is staffed by dozens of guides, cleaners and vendors, all wearing period gear and dressed as shepherds, beggars, wealthy Romans and centurions.
But unlike Disneyland, where staff are compelled to stay in character on pain of dismissal, things are more relaxed at Tierra Santa.
Guides holler through crackling megaphones. Security guards obediently take photos of visitors next to plaster camels. And during their breaks staff openly chat and check their social media profiles on mobile phones, shattering the thin illusion that you’ve stepped back in time.
This laissez-faire attitude to work permeates the park.
Climb to the top of Golgotha and you’ll likely see that Jesus and his followers haven’t been cleaned in months, and are covered in a thick layer of cobwebs.
During my visit I also saw a cleaner dumping candy wrappers and cigarette butts in a fake Roman well, rather than disposing of them in a trash can.
Sneering centurions are happy to be photographed with their plastic swords held to the throats of grinning pensioners, while other staff members take it in turns to snap pictures of tourists pretending to ride static Roman chariots.
Tierra Santa is often grim. But a party atmosphere pervades the entire site, and the staff do their best to keep visitors smiling.
Serving God and pizza
Like any theme park, Tierra Santa is teeming with ways for visitors to squander their cash.
Most notable are the restaurants and fast food outlets that doggedly stick with the park’s religious theme.
Two of the park’s restaurants – Baghdad Cafe and Noah’s Ark – offer food from the Middle East, and a menu dominated by Arabic and Armenian cuisine.
But my favourite snacks were in the Gate Of Damascus burger bar and Salem Pizzeria, where exhausted travellers can enjoy a beer and take a break from the crowds.
Tierra Santa also has dozens of souvenir shops to explore, where trestle tables strain under the weight of religious nicknacks and Jesus tat.
If you can attach a Jesus sticker to it, you can buy it in Tierra Santa – from low-cost trinkets such as pens, keyrings and notebooks to original pieces of art that sell for hundreds of dollars.
My treasure from Tierra Santa is a plastic Virgin Mary, which changes from red to blue depending on the weather.
Almost a decade after I bought her, she still predicts the climate with uncanny accuracy.
Come one, come all
Although Tierra Santa feels kitsch and superficial, it’s encouraging to see this Christian theme park paying respect to other religions and historical do-gooders from a variety of backgrounds and faiths.
A huge synagogue and mosque are key attractions in the park, along with a faithful recreation of the Wailing Wall.
You’ll also find statues of Martin Luther, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Gandhi, who are honoured by the park as they “fought for peace”.
The owners of Tierra Santa claim they want the park to maintain a “multi-religious dialogue”, and are keen that their fake city represents Jerusalem as it was during Christ’s time – with Jews, Romans, Christians and more.
No matter what your religious beliefs are, Tierra Santa’s sensitivity and inclusive approach are encouraging and make the park a safe and fascinating space for visitors of all faiths (or lack of it).
He is the resurrection
The highlight of any visit to Tierra Santa is the hourly resurrection, where a 40ft robot Jesus rises serenely from a plastic mountain.
When the countdown begins to Christ’s second coming, the park’s other attractions empty as crowds jostle for seats on viewing platforms.
As the clock strikes the hour, speakers hidden in fake palm trees roar to life and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ echoes across the park, drowning the idle chatter of impatient pilgrims.
At a slow, smooth pace, the 40ft-tall Jesus rises from the mountain, his arms stretched wide and a serene expression playing across his face.
The years have not been kind to JC, and the paint has chipped and flaked around his animatronic neck.
Not that anyone seems to care, as Christ’s appearance is met by the blinding glare of a thousand camera flashes.
As he reaches the apex of his short ascent, robo-Jesus turns his hands to show that his gruesome stigmata have magically disappeared.
He then tilts his face towards the heavens, closes his eyes, and soaks up the adulation of the assembled crowd who “ooh!” and “ahh!” in unison.
Some devotees even start to cry.
Sadly, Christ’s star turn is over as quickly as it began, and the animatronic saviour sinks behind the mountain as Handel’s masterwork reaches its crescendo.
A respectful round of applause erupts as Jesus’ halo finally disappears, and the crowds disperse to check out the park’s other devout delights.
Who are we to judge?
So, is Tierra Santa worth visiting?
Yes and no.
If you’re looking for thrills and excitement, the park’s prosaic attractions and humdrum theatrics will leave you cold.
Religious visitors may also be perturbed by this trashy take on biblical events, and feel this cheery fantasy land is nothing short of sacrilegious.
But what I loved about Tierra Santa is its warmth and sincerity, and apparent blindness to the tackiness of its plaster and plastic creations.
There aren’t many laughs in the bible, but visitors won’t fail to smile when confronted by Tierra Santa’s campness, absurdity and downright cheesiness.
In my book, that’s reason enough to visit.
Check out the expanded Tierra Santa photo gallery.