Recoleta Cemetery is one of the few essential tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. This is a city that is made for the meandering tourist. The joy is in wandering through the distinct neighborhoods, observing how the locals live their lives and discovering little pockets of the city that you especially like. It’s not a city with a long list of must-see attractions that you need to tick off one by one. The exception — the one spot you should visit no matter how short your stay — is the Recoleta Cemetery. It’s a truly memorable experience and a profound representation of elegant and historical Buenos Aires.
Located at the top of the hilly Plaza Francia, the cemetery gate is suitably grand: large white Greek pillars mark the entrance to the ‘City of the Dead.’ This nickname conjures images of hordes of zombies stumbling around some kind of post-apocalyptic cityscape, which is not what you will find beyond the neo-classical gate, believe it or not. The name refers to the way the cemetery is laid out – very much like a miniature city. There are city blocks, stone streets, alleys and even little plazas. In the Recoleta Cemetery, though, the ‘houses’ are in fact ornate mausoleums, whose the only residents do nothing but slumber in eternal sleep.
Rather than being overly macabre, the first thing you notice is the beauty of the tombs. With over 6400 of them built in varying styles, they range from fairly plain, to intricately detailed, to powerfully imposing and spectacular. Many are unquestionably works of art.
Bold crosses, cathedral-like domes and winged angels are the recurring adornments to these lavish resting places. A feeling of wealth and power abounds; only the most influential Argentines earn themselves a ticket to the Recoleta Cemetery once they have shuffled off this mortal coil. The names chiseled onto the vaults exude importance, even if you don’t know who most of them are. Literary laureates, mythical sportsmen and artists rub stoney shoulders with presidents and other luminaries. Often the tombs pertain to important families, and several family members occupy the same vault. Sarmiento the president, Hernandez the writer and Firpo the boxer are all there. Eva Peron, in death, is still the people’s favorite, even if her tomb, when you eventually find it, is underwhelming. This is the most expensive real estate in Buenos Aires, and space is at a premium. The mausoleums are tightly packed together, which often highlights the mishmash of stylistic differences from one vault to the next.
Until 1822, Buenos Aires residents who passed away were buried on church grounds. After a while, this practice became problematic for reasons of space and hygiene. Eventually, in November of that year, Governor Martin Rodriguez banned the traditional practice, and instituted the city’s first official cemetery on the grounds of a monastery. The layout of The Northern Cemetery, as it was then known, with its city-style blocks and central plaza, was designed by French engineer Próspero Catelin. However the grounds fell into disrepair until, in 1881, then-Mayor Torcuato de Alvear decided to order a complete renovation, carried out by Italian architect Juan Antonio Burschiazzo. It was then that the front gate was constructed, and improvements to the streets and the chapel were made. The name was changed to its present one, Cementerio de la Recoleta (Recoleta Cemetery) in 1949. Today, the cemetery is kept in good repair, with street signs to help people find their way, and benches for them to rest on. Tomb maintenance is really the responsibility of ancestors of the deceased, which means you see the occasional shabby, forgotten crypt. Peaking into such vaults through broken glass to see a coffin resting no more than a couple of feet away can be a pointed reminder that you are actually in a cemetery, and not some extravagant outdoor museum.
Best of all, entry is free! There are also free tours in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11 a.m. If you can’t make it at that time, there is a numbered map at the entrance which shows the locations of dozens of important tombs. There are also maps available for sale around the entrance. If you have some knowledge of Argentinian historical figures, it’s worthwhile following the map to the mausoleums that you would like to see, otherwise you can just wander around and find things that interest you. Don’t worry about getting lost, the cemetery is not so big that you won’t be able to find your way back to the central plaza or the front gate. It is big enough, though, that you can spend several hours in there and still not see many of the interesting vaults; so repeat trips always result in new discoveries.
–by Dan Colasimone
Calle Junín 1790 (Plaza Francia)
Hours: Daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tel: (54) 11 4804-7040 or (54) 11 7803-1594