When you’re on vacation and researching points of interest it’s not often that a cemetery makes the list of “must see” destinations. Sure museums, old churches, and town squares are always recommended in guide books but cemeteries not so much. Why visit memorials to the dead, especially if you don’t know them, they are not famous and many of them died over hundred years ago? What is it about cemeteries that pique people’s interest? I found myself asking some of these questions recently on our way to visit Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires and with Halloween right around the corner I thought this was a great time to share this trip.
The Recoleta Cemetery was founded in 1822 as the first public cemetery of Buenos Aires on the former garden of a convent of monks. During a very prosperous era for the city from the end of the 19th Century through the early 1930s the vast wealth of the city’s inhabitants trickled down to their final resting places. Today the cemetery is filled with amazing architecture of numerous notable people in Argentinian history including presidents of the country, Nobel Prize winners, and probably the most famous of all, Eva Perón. There are almost 4,700 vaults in the 14 acre (5.5 hectare) cemetery and 94 vaults are protected by the Argentine government as declared National Historical Monuments.
This is another one of those posts where it is much easier for the pictures to do the talking.
Many of the vaults and mausoleums are in good condition and are cared for either by family estates or by the government. You could look inside to see family photos, flowers, and other items left by family members as reminders of how they lived their lives. An entire generation of a family together again under one roof. Sadly, there were also quite a few structures that have fallen into disrepair. We saw many vaults with broken windows and inside contents filled with thick layers of dust and cobwebs. Whether the deceased has no remaining family or the lot was simply forgotten over time is not known, but it was a little depressing to see many of these vaults in this condition and evidence that no one but strangers have come to pay their respect in years.
While I probably would have benefited from a tour I was content to wander among the tombs and stopping at ones I found interesting. There were many times where I found myself alone down a row of vaults and it was a little spooky. Even though the cemetery is surrounded by a major city it can get eerily quiet and the only sounds you would hear were hushed whispers or the clop clop of someone stepping on a loose tile somewhere close to you.
One of the graves that receives the most attention in the cemetery (you can find it by looking for the large gathering of people or a tour group) is that of Eva Peron, the wife of former President Juan Perón and First Lady of Argentina. During her life Eva, also known affectionately as Evita, spoke up for the rights of laborers, helped care for the sick and the poor, and fought for women’s suffrage. For all her work she is still highly regarded today by the people of Argentina as evidenced by the overflowing displays of flowers around her vault. Two things that I found most interesting in viewing Evita’s grave were that it was not as ornate a vault compared to many others in the cemetery and that there is a VERY interesting story about the travels Evita’s body took (for 20 years!) before she arrived back in Buenos Aires as her final resting place.
So why do people visit cemeteries? I hope you’re not looking for me to provide some profound or surreal answer because I have no clue. However, if you asked whether or not you should visit Recoleta Cemetery specifically then I would say YES. It is a interesting combination of park and art museum as well as the celebration of life and family and should not be missed. It was easy to see how publications like Travel & Leisure and CNN named this cemetery one of the most beautiful in the world. It even makes me think that I should start planning for my own mausoleum/museum when the time comes, but I plan to live forever and so far so good.
What you need to know
Entry to the cemetery is free and it is open daily from 8am to 6pm. There are free tours in English at 11am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I enjoyed walking around by myself throughout the cemetery but undoubtedly would have learned more with a guide explaining the history of the cemetery and those who reside there. The closest subte (subway) stations are Retiro and Callao and Buenos Aires and is pretty easy to get to from various parts of the city.