Nuns get free entry into Holy Land but for the rest of us it’s 70 pesos. A trio of smug-faced sisters glides past security while the less godly are crushed together in the sweaty mass of a 20-minute queue. I am wedged in the middle of a group of Mormon missionaries from Utah wearing personalised red anoraks. I tap “JOE: MISSION LEADER” on the back to ask him some questions. Joe is a big fan of Tierra Santa – this being his third visit – and likes saying things twice: “Oh, I think it’s wonderful. Just wonderful.”
The first attraction is the animated nativity laser show. The shepherd checking tickets solemnly informs me this is the park’s most spiritual location and that visitors have heard angels talking to them during the show. In a cave-like room, multi-coloured spotlights whirl around the stage to electro music and a disco ball illuminates suspended cherubs. The overall effect is a bit like a school disco but with fewer snogging 13-year-olds and more fibreglass farm animals. The celestial voices unfortunately aren’t audible above the woman on my row choking on the green smoke billowing out from a machine behind us.
The park’s main attraction is meant to be an 18-metre Jesus with ‘18 mechanical movements’ rising from a plastic mountain every hour, but I manage to miss it every time. My regret is compounded when I bump into Joe and the Mormons later on. Joe tells me that “it was quite a sight, quite a sight” and Joe’s wife, Marni describes the experience as “A-M-A-Z-I-N-G”.
Holy Land is not for thrill seekers. The closest thing to a ride is the “rotating ark of Joseph” – a glorified merry-go-round with camels and donkeys that don’t even spin or go up and down.
Hungry, I buy a candyfloss stick from an angry-looking man dressed as Pontius Pilate. I can’t work out whether he’s really getting into Jesus-hating character or just has an aversion to sugary snacks. In a plastic-Bethlehem alleyway I find a bench to sit and read the guidebook. Finishing my candyfloss, I am encouraged to contemplate how Happiness is not about possessing– it is about loving and ask myself How many times does our pride prevent us from asking for help??
Visitors queue up to take photos of themselves posing next to forty life-size plastic models of Jesus. My favourite of the biblical scenes depicts Jesus angrily expelling a salesman from the temple: “do not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:13–16). It seems an odd message from the privately owned commercial enterprise which has turned Jesus’s life into a lucrative franchise.
The gift shop is an Aladdin’s Cave of gaudy, glittering kitsch. Gory bronzes of Christ bleeding on the cross jostle with a giant, fluffy baby Jesus. Locked behind glass, a crowd of collectable figurines of biblical characters resembling cabbage-patch kids gaze out, goggle-eyed.
Disillusioned from the Resurrection, I don’t bother to queue up for the Holy Fountain where visitors have allegedly had visions. Instead, I wander around, looking for the exit. I find myself in the staff parking area where a shifty-looking Roman Soldier is taking a cigarette break. I ask him about the stories of heavenly voices and visions in the park. “Yes, I have heard this too. But I think these people are a little, you know…” He rolls his eyes. “I’m not really a religious guy myself. I used to work at McDonalds, now I’m here, supervising the Last Supper. The pay is better.”