There is nowhere else in the world quite like the cemetery in Recoleta – a sprawling city of the dead filled with the cathedralesque tombs of Buenos Aires’ most affluent families.
Covering an area the size of four city blocks, the vast graveyard is also an open-air museum showcasing the work of some of the city’s foremost architects, who were commissioned by prominent families to create elaborate mausoleums in which to house their dead.
Today, generations of those families fill the cemetery with an eerie silence. From humble, minimal style chapels to the most intricate mini-cathedrals, some soaring several storeys into the sky, topped with statues of angels reaching to the heavens, more than 4,500 tombs fill the cemetery, including that of Eva ‘Evita’ Peron, as well as former presidents, military leaders and city governors.
Myriad architectural styles are on display, from contemporary creations made from gleaming Italian marble to neo-gothic vaults with domed roofs and crumbling statues guarding the entrance.
Most of the mausoleums feature commemorative plaques and many have iron gates or glass entrances, through which you can see the coffins of the dead, some laid out neatly in rows, others stacked one on top of the other in various states of disrepair.
One of my favourites is that of Hugo Stunz, director of Argentina’s El Dia newspaper from 1894-1900 and 1918-1929. The plaque outside the tomb was donated by his colleagues at the newspaper and designed in the style of the front page of the popular daily, featuring a picture of Stunz and an engraving of the newspaper’s headquarters.
Evita’s tomb is of course one of the most visited – you can find it by following the huge groups of guided tours that fill the otherwise serene cemetery with noisy chatter. Free English language tours are led on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 11am, but plenty of other private tour groups waft through.
Alternatively, find it on your own by walking half way up the main tree-lined avenue and turning left, then poking around a few side streets. Explore the alleyways until you find the tomb of Familia Duarte, which is usually covered in flowers in tribute to the memory of the former First Lady.
The cemetery is open from 7am to 6pm, but the best time to visit is either first thing, where there are few other visitors except for the resident cats, or late in the evening, when the shadows grow long and the eerie avenues and alleyways take on a life of their own.