Named as the number one must-see site in Buenos Aires in probably every guidebook, the Recoleta Cemetery’s reputation is more than well-deserved. Located in the Recoleta neighborhood, the cemetery contains the mausoleums of Argentine presidents, Nobel Prize winners, and other notables as well as well-heeled members of Buenos Aires society. The cemetery’s most famous resident is Eva Perón, the second wife of former President Juan Perón.
As we approached the cemetery we could see the roofs and domes of mausoleums peeking over the top of the high brick wall that surrounds the cemetery. It felt almost like walking up to an attraction in Disney World – we could tell there was something fabulous inside but were only being offered a small tease. We couldn’t wait to get inside to see more.
After passing through the main gate I had to stop and catch my breath. It was like entering a fabulous but macabre city, with each street offering an array of beautiful, interesting or weird sites to explore. The mausoleums ranged in size from tiny to immense, from very old to modern, from simple to highly ornate. Some were adorned with fabulous sculpture, others were more plain. It was easy to date some of the mausoleums by their architecture: an Art Nouveau door signified the building was erected around the turn of the 19th century, and Art Deco design meant the tomb was erected later, sometime in the 1930s. Brett’s first impression was that it looked like the cemeteries in New Orleans, but by the time we left his comment was, “New Orleans is nothing like this!”
Most of the graves were somewhat well maintained, but many were not, and it was fascinating to observe the decay happening throughout the cemetery. Sometimes the outer building was doing well, but the inside was crumbling. Other times the whole edifice, inside and out, was falling apart. Some of the mausoleums were on one level, with coffins displayed on shelves, but many had a stairwell heading underground, where the coffins rested while upstairs contained an altar or other simple decoration. Apparently built on a hillside, the top of the back wall of the cemetery stands nearly three stories above the street below.
The most famous and most visited grave in the cemetery is the Duarte family mausoleum, where Eva Perón’s (Evita) is buried. Still viewed by many Argentinians as practically a saint, her mausoleum is adorned with flowers, rosaries and other ornaments brought by her admirers, and there is almost always a small crowd there. The story of her death and what followed is both sad and weird. Only 33 years old, she suffered greatly before she died of cervical cancer in 1952.
It is said that it costs more to die here than to live in Buenos Aires, and the Recoleta Cemetery is a testament to that expression. The cost of some of the mausoleums and their accompanying sculptures had to be in the millions, and that’s on top of the cost of space inside the cemetery. No matter, it was an extremely fascinating place to visit even though we had no idea who any of its residents were (other than Eva Perón).