Seven secrets of Retiro Park

There’s a bunker, a hidden chess club, a haunting forest and a forgotten city-centre zoo, among a few other secrets held by the gatekeeper of Retiro Park. But dive in with the darkest, most disturbing secret of all: the ‘human zoo’…


Deep in the heart of Retiro Park, glimmering against an oasis, lives the Crystal Palace: a beautiful glass mansion with a year-round tropical climate. Originally built to house exotic plant life from the farthest corners of the Spanish empire, it adjoined a small lake where ancient tribes from these faraway lands would fish just as their ancestors did.

The lake where the humans fished

An entire village was built to exhibit these unfamiliar people in their ‘natural habitat’, with thousands of curious spectators paying for a glimpse into their exotic world. Welcome to the darkest corner of Retiro Park: Madrid’s erstwhile ‘human zoo’, which you can read all about here.

Humans from the Philippines


A short walk from the Crystal Palace, I heard a familiar sound coming from the denser forest nearby. It was the madrileño hum! I followed the sound of light chattering until it got a little louder, but not too loud… this was a very serious park-bench chess gala…


Behind the chic venue Florida Retiro, step over the rope barriers and scan the grass for three metal panels. Go ahead and stand on top of them: beneath your feet is an eight-metre-deep, two-storey bunker providing space for 200 people. Constructed during the Spanish Civil War, it’s apparently still in good condition should it ever need to be used again – which I hope it doesn’t.


In 2001, the Madrid City Council emptied the lake to solve a problem of massive water losses. It was then that they dredged up 192 chairs, 40 submerged boats, 41 tables, 20 bins, nine wooden benches, three garbage bins, 50 mobile phones, a bubble gum vending machine, umbrellas, skateboards, an empty safe, wallets, shoes, and even urns of ashes.

Retiro lake, 1945

Though the photo above is from around 100 years ago (showing perhaps some of those 40 submerged boats), the dredging was 18 years ago. Imagine what curious objects have found their way to the bottom of the shallow lake now.


In 2004, 10 explosions across four trains in Madrid killed 192 people. Here was the front page of El País the following day:

A memorial site called the Forest of Remembrance was inaugurated inside Retiro Park in 2005, paying tribute to the victims of the 2004 11-M terrorist attack, and to the police officer killed by the perpetrators of the attack in April of the same year, in Leganés.

One hundred and seventy closely planted cypress trees line the winding path leading up the small hill of remembrance – one planted for each victim – with a curious significance. Cypress trees can be found standing inside almost every religious site across Spain, chosen thousands of years ago as the most holy tree for its direct and tall reach towards heaven.

Cypress trees can also be found lining small towns throughout Spain, defending the people from wild fires as they’re particularly fire-resistant. Twenty-two perfect, fruit-bearing olive trees fill the spaces between the cypress trees on this hauntingly peaceful hill, representing the rest of the 192 victims.

Location: Bosque del Recuerdo


In the heart of Retiro park between 1774 and 1972, there were polar bears, lions, zebras, camels, elephants and many more exotic animals living in tiny cages at touching distance from the public.

Children feeding the elephant

Could you imagine a polar bear in 40°C heat, or a lion in a cage? It was a cruel setup that wouldn’t be permitted today, but even though it was a slightly different time, the photographs are still hard to believe…

A couple chatting in front of a lion

There are still traces of the zoo today. In fact, this building above has been converted into a library. Where the lions were once incarcerated, there are rows of books, and where polar bears once roamed, there’s an octagonal enclosure vaguely replicating the Arctic landscape.


Did you know about the book-swapping kiosks in Retiro Park? If you have some old books, you can leave them here for people to enjoy. Likewise, browse through whatever is there that day, and even take one home if you like.

The old book-swapping kiosk

Location: Near the public library inside Retiro Park

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1 Comment

  • You should purchase “Madrid Oculto”,three books about the curious stuff in Madrid and the surrounding cities. There are spanish and english editions. 15 euros each one or 40 all of them. There are really easy to find. 😉

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