Cross purposes: Visitors at the Tierra Santa theme park in Buenos Aires. Photo: Alamy
Keith Austin goes in search of some divine distractions in Buenos Aires.
Pope tours? The concierge at the Buenos Aires Park Tower Hotel was perplexed. He shook his head: "No, there is no such thing. But perhaps the hop-on hop-off bus will go to some of the places on your list."
This was just the month after Buenos Aires native Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been made Pope Francis. Within hours of the papal election on March 13, Kieran Rooney, an enterprising Irish hotelier in the city, had started advertising seven-day Pope-based tours that took in the regular haunts of the former cardinal but, it seemed, the city's tourism authorities were slow to see the tourism potential of an Argentinian Pope in this mostly Catholic country.
Papal pulling power: A peddler sells souvenirs bearing images of Pope Francis and Saint Cayetano. Photo: AFP
It took another month before the first official "Papa Tours" rolled out across the city (see below) but by that time we were long gone.
So what to do? I was in the mood for some Pope-based tourism but even though more than 70 per cent of Argentina's 41 million people are Roman Catholic, any fervour for the new Pope seemed muted. (The statistics say only 20 per cent of that 70 per cent are practicing Catholics so perhaps that explains it). Even so, walking the streets of Buenos Aires there is little evidence of Pope Fever or even memorabilia. And I wanted a Pope T-shirt; a mug at the very least.
After a typical Argentinian rump steak and chips lunch I pulled our tour guide to one side, explained that I wanted to go off piste, as it were. He looked at me like I had suggested something untoward with his sister: "You want to go where? No, you don't want to go there; it's, er, very dusty. And a long way away."
His pronunciation of "long" made it sound like I was contemplating a trip to the moooooon and back.
Yes, yes, I do. I really do want to go to Tierra Santa, Parque Tematico, aka the Jesus Christ Theme Park. Can't throw me a Pope bone? Then I'm going over his head.
Ask anyone about the Jesus Christ Theme Park in Buenos Aires and you'll get blank looks. Eva Peron's tomb? Yup. Tango shows? The colourful Boca area? For sure. But for some reason a South American Disneyland dedicated to Christ is way down the list of things to see and do. Trust me, though: once you've heard about it, the mere idea exerts an almost biblical pull.
It didn't, after all, take loooong, just a 20-minute, 60-peso taxi ride from downtown BA and there you are, standing outside the curiously adobe-style entrance to Tierra Santa, flanked by gaudy stone angels blowing trumpets and where a sign warns that the park doesn't have rain insurance.
The park opened for business in 2000 (with, quite literally, the blessing of the future Pope himself) and is essentially a 7-hectare reproduction of the streets of biblical Jerusalem where the events of Jesus's life are loosely played out in a series of dioramas, life-sized statues and poorly executed animatronic shows.
Talking of executions, the first thing you see on passing the "real-life" blue-robed Roman centurion talking on his mobile phone at the gate, is the bulbous recreation of the hill of Calvary, complete with three men nailed to crosses, surrounded by various biblical dramatis personae.
It is from the rear of this that the park's piece de resistance appears on the hour every hour: the "resurrection" of a 12-metre Christ statue which rises out of the hilltop like some kind of Cold War Russian missile from a silo.
And, to make matters worse, or better depending on your sensibilities, this appearance is heralded by every loudspeaker in the joint blasting out, in Pythonesque seriousness, the chorus from Handel's Messiah. "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halle-e-elujah!"
Which is all very well but, like many of the exhibits in the park, Jesus doesn't need to be so much as raised up or praised up as touched up. His holy hands swivel, his all-seeing eyes open and close but, really, some of the paint job around his neck needs work. This is Jesus with a wattle.
The park is parcelled up into sections that celebrate memorable events in the Messiah's life. I opted for the Nativity spectacle, which boasted animatronic Wise Men with creaky knees , baby Jesus in the manger and a veritable cloud of the most obese cherubs in Christendom.
There's a little manger-animal merry-go-round in the grounds but no other "rides", which seems like a missed opportunity as "Crucifixion Carousel" and "Resurrection Ride" both have a good ring to them.
Finally, at the official souvenir shop just around the corner from the Salem pizzeria and an olde worlde market street where stalls were piled high with Pope candles, Virgin Mary incense sticks and Tierra Santa key holders, I got my Pope Francis souvenir mug.
Well, it was either that or a Crucifixion-scene snow dome.
The writer travelled courtesy of Captain's Choice.
LET THE TOURS BEGIN
Free three-hour Pope Circuit tours finally started in mid-May and take in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral where the Pope was archbishop from 2001 and the neighbourhood of Flores, where he was born.
The tours also include Herminia Brumana Square, where the future Pope played soccer, the Jesuit College of El Salvador where he taught literature and psychology in the 1960s, and the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy where he took his first communion.
The 43-seat bus swings through 24 spots in eight Buenos Aires districts to tell the story of the man who became Pope.
There are also two walking tours, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. See turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar/es
Captain's Choice operates a 24-day Amazon, Andes & Incas tour, which includes a stop in Buenos Aires. Phone 1800 650 738, see captainschoice.com.au. Aerolineas Argentinas also flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires, see aerolineas.com.
SEE AND DO
Tierra Santa is at Av. Rafael Obligado 5790, Buenos Aires. Adult entry is 60 pesos, 30 pesos for children under 12 (nuns get in free). The park (tierrasanta-bsas.com.aris) is open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.
More information argentina.travel/en