It should come as no surprise that the Recoleta Cemetery is just about as fashionable as the whole of the Recoleta barrio (Spanish for neighborhood), one of the most prestigious and affluent barrios in Buenos Aires. The cost per square meter/foot of real estate is one of the highest in the city. Buenos Aires has been dubbed the “Paris of South America” and walking along Recoleta’s tree-lined boulevards, many filled with mansions and other buildings that were modeled after European architectural styles, it’s easy to see why.
While the Recoleta Cemetery is home to some prestigious individuals including countless former presidents of Argentina, the most famous of them all is former Argentine first lady Eva Peron. What’s ironic is that her grave is entirely subdued and understated in stark contrast to the way she led her life. What’s even funnier is that her grave (she is buried in her father’s family the Duartes’ mausoleum), is one of the most difficult ones to find. For years she lived her life in the public eye but then in the afterlife, she almost became circumspect. My friend and I went on an organized excursion to Recoleta that was offered through our hostel. When the two hostel workers who were leading the tour told the group that a silly prize would be awarded to whoever found Peron’s grave first, we thought they were joking. After repeated searching, walking up and down the lanes of the cemetery which is quite civilized, no grassy dirt paths here, we returned to the hostel workers where they proceeded to take us to the grave site. They later told us that if a grave was located on a “side street” and not a main walkway, it would be terribly hard to find (this is the case for the Duarte family mausoleum). Although the figure of Eva Peron is still extremely polemical, specifically on whether she was the saint she and her supporters made her out to be, or the sinner her enemies considered her to be (she was born illegitimately and thus climbed her way to the top), the fact that she died from cancer at the age of 33 made me feel sad for her all the same. Hers was a life cut tragically short, a life that perhaps would have changed the path the country embarked on decades later during the horrific Dirty War.
The origins of the cemetery are traced back to the monks of the Order of the Recoletos who arrived in the area in the early 18th century; at the time Recoleta was considered separate from Buenos Aires (similar to Paris’ Montmartre and Seville’s Triana neighborhoods). Although the order was disbanded in 1822, the garden of the convent was transformed into the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires; the cemetery had been built around the order’s convent and church, Our Lady of Pilar, which dates to 1732. The cemetery was last remodeled more than 130 years ago and strolling along its walkways is like strolling back into the past. I’ve never been to Pere Lachaise in Paris but from pictures I’ve seen, Recoleta looks similar in terms of design and scope. All of Recoleta is laid out in various sections similar to city blocks, the tree-lined walkways offering visitors a sense of peace and serenity. Were it not for the fact that Recoleta Cemetery is a place for the departed, it seems like it would be an idyllic spot for a picnic or pleasant respite.
The cemetery contains many elaborate mausoleums decorated with statutes whose styles range from Art Deco, Art Noveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic. Overstated wouldn’t even begin to describe some of the mausoleums that graced the sidewalks in Recoleta. The occupants of these mausoleums were probably the same ones who at one time lived in miniature chateaux style mansions in Recoleta. (Many of these homes were subsequently torn down in the late 1950s and 1960s and the land converted to house multiple buildings as opposed to a monolithic home for just one family. However, some of Recoleta’s Parisian style buildings remain including the Palacio Duhau, which today operates as the Park Hyatt Hotel following an extensive renovation.)
As it was after all a cemetery, there is still a level of sadness attached to the mausoleums that have fallen into disrepair. I walked by numerous ones in which broken glass and other detritus was littered about. Although the occupants of the mausoleums were nameless to me, I surmised that perhaps these contained the graves of individuals whose family line had died out and so there was no one left to take care of the site anymore. It was similar to small cemeteries I’ve seen that contain graves hundreds of years old whose tombstones are so weathered you can no longer make out the names or dates on them.
While some may feel a cemetery is just a cemetery, Recoleta is not. There is nothing ordinary or generic about it. It is posh and overstated and an ostentatious display of wealth. Yet a visit there provides a most memorable walk through the past footsteps of Buenos Aires’ most illustrious residents.