While a cemetery may not be on your list of top sites to see on vacation, make an exception when you’re in Buenos Aires. Perhaps no single site better captures the cultural legacy of Argentina’s aristocracy and its impact on the country’s narrative than Recoleta Cemetery. (Both CNN and the BBC have said as much.) Chock-a-block with extravagant mausoleums, the necropolis is an elite city within the city. Full of past governors, presidents, politicians, patriots, and intellectuals, the cemetery houses the heroes and architects of Argentina’s history — each with a story immortalized in the most lavish monumental masonry money can buy. Spoiler alert: A certain Perón is here, too. Take a look for yourself.
A brief history
The cemetery started out modestly enough, as the final resting place for the early 18th-century Franciscan Recollect monks who lived and worshipped in the adjoining Convent Recoleta and Basilica (Church of our Lady of the Pillar). When the order disbanded in 1822, the cemetery was converted to Buenos Aires’s first public cemetery.
While ostensibly for the common citizen, the cemetery was significantly upgraded at the time by French civil engineer Próspero Catelin, who had just rolled off designing the façade for the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral, a veritable colossus of 19th-century neoclassical construction. In short, it was clear that the fancy cemetery was going to be for fancy people. Remodeled a second time in 1881 by celebrated Italian architect Juan Antonio Buschiazzo, Recoleta was well on its way to architectural glory – alongside many of the city’s other showpieces.
Description of Recoleta Cemetery
The main entrance, off Calle Junín in the northeastern part of barrio Recoleta, is itself palatial. Four imposing Doric columns stand sentry to a tiled peristyle enclosed by a wrought iron gate. Once through, a main drag lined with cypress trees, benches, and mausoleums bisects the site, which in turns leads to a network of lanes and pathways that accommodate the growing number of residents.
The cemetery spans 14 acres and includes over 6,000 snugly arrayed vaults — all above ground. Some are quite eccentric, but each is a work of art; 94 have been designated as National Historical Monuments. Indeed, there is a hodgepodge of styles here: Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque, Neo-Gothic, and downright theatrical. Materials are on the luxe side (mostly imported from Europe) and include Italian marble, Murano glass, and gold leaf, among others. Statuary and stonework adorns, well, everything and are forged in themes ranging from religious iconography to popular sports.
On a meander through Recoleta Cemetery, you are likely to stumble across vaults resembling Greek temples complete with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian-styled columns; Egyptian-like sarcophaguses with extensive bas-reliefs; veritable cathedrals; life-size renderings of the dead, and so on. Some tombs even have windows through which you can peer in – to see photographs, keepsakes, and other mementos.
Tombs to see
While there are too many tombs of Argentinian notables worth viewing to mention here, we do recommend a few. First, to address the proverbial elephant in the vault, Eva Perón’s tomb is worth seeing if only because of its relative modesty (emphasis on relative) and because, yes, she continues to be Argentina’s most powerful icon.
After an inconceivable ordeal in which the corpse of Evita was first embalmed for public display and then stolen and hidden in Europe for 20 years, Argentina’s First Lady now rests 15 feet under her family Duarte’s tomb at Recoleta. Heavily fortified, the mausoleum is average in size, made from dark granite and bronze, and marked with a simple plaque. Pro tip: Get here early in the morning or prepare to wait up to 20 minutes to get close enough for an Insta-worthy snap of the site.
Argentinian Presidents Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888) and Bartolomé Mitre (1821-1906) are here, too, along with Irish-born Admiral Guillermo Brown (1777-1857), founder of the Argentine Navy. His tomb, partially constructed from the bronze canons of his battleships, includes ship carvings and is bathed in green – a nod to his Celtic heritage.
Independence hero General Tomás Guido (1788-1866) resides in a grotto-like tomb; and a hero of another sort, professional boxer Luis Ángel Firpo (1894-1960) – the first Latin American to seek the world heavyweight title – had his tomb adorned with a life-size bronze likeness in a robe and boxing shoes.
Other residents include Isabelle Colonna-Walewski, the illegitimate granddaughter of Napoleon; as well as teenager Rufina Cambaceres (1883-1902), purportedly buried alive by accident. She resides in an Art Nouveau-styled mausoleum complete with sculpted orchids and a mournful-looking young woman at the door.
Lastly, don’t miss 26-year old Liliana Crociati de Szaszak (1944-1970), who tragically passed away in an avalanche in Austria during her honeymoon. The interior of her vault is a reproduction of her bedroom, where she was reportedly laid to rest in her wedding dress. A life-size bronze statue of the bride stands adjacent to the tomb, along with a statue of her faithful dog, Sabu, added when he passed some time later.
Tours and information
Entrance to Recoleta Cemetery is free and maps are available at the front gate. We recommend you get one, especially if you want to see Evita and then explore other tombs. Guided tours (700 ARS or $10) are available Monday through Saturday and last about two hours. If you’d rather not worry about navigating the labyrinthine site or like a lot of historical context, this is the way to go.
A final pro tip: Other than the central boulevard, there is no tree cover or shade. In the hotter months (December through February) be sure to wear a hat, use copious amounts of sunscreen, and bring water to stay hydrated.
Check out our article on Buenos Aires for more to do in this magnificent city.