Argentina's City of the Dead
By: Jonna Royer
Visiting Buenos Aires brought one surprise after another. The huge population, the blend of cultures and languages, and the large amount of European architecture often reminded me of New York City. But, the biggest surprise came from visiting el Cementerio de Recoleta, the city’s famous above-ground cemetery and final resting place of Eva Peron, widely known as Evita. We had been told the cemetery was a “must see” spot for tourists, but had no idea it would be the highlight of our trip.
Admission is free and the cemetery draws around half a million visitors each year. A tall brick wall surrounds the massive collection of breathtaking architecture and incredible sculptures, blocking out the hustle of the surrounding city. The streets near the entrance are surrounded by numerous restaurants, food carts, and vendors, making the stillness within the walls that much more palpable.
The cemetery is a city in itself. The fourteen-acre burial ground is intersected by wide streets and narrow alleys that run through the maze of mausoleums. The crowd seemed to be heading toward the left side of the labyrinth, so we turned right to get away from them. It wasn’t long before we were lost, but we didn’t mind.
The crypts, sculptures, and engravings contained within La Recoleta are just as good, if not better, than any art museum. Some of the mausoleums were exquisite in their beauty with no signs of disrepair, while others were haunting memorials of crumbling concrete with rusted gates and broken windows that provided a glimpse of the dusty coffins beyond.
When I first saw an empty plastic dish lying in front of a crypt, I thought it was simply a piece of trash left behind by an uncaring visitor. But, after seeing several more, I discovered they exist to provide food to the many cats that inhabit the cemetery. Every day, a handful of people enter the graveyard and fill the dishes, providing sustenance to the feline residents who are quite at home lounging on the sepulchers observing the tourists as they wander by.
At some point, we came by a line of people and discovered they were waiting to see Evita’s final resting place. Curiosity got the best of us, so we joined the queue. Expecting her mausoleum to be the grandest building in the cemetery, I was surprised when we filed up to a beautiful, but modest crypt with the name Duarte embossed on the door.
As it turns out, Eva Peron’s fascinating story did not end with her death. In 1955, her body was removed by the military that had forced her husband into exile. She was taken to Italy and buried under a false name. The body wasn’t returned to Argentina until 1974, where she was briefly put on display and then interred in Los Olivos before finally coming to rest in La Recoleta Cemetery in 1976. Evita’s remains now reside 27 feet below the ground surrounded by layers of fortified steel.
I had anticipated spending an hour at the cemetery, but four hours after our arrival, we heard the loud, hollow sound of a bell filter through the alleys. Shortly after, guards fanned through the maze of mausoleums intent on chasing visitors out. One came upon us, and gestured fervently while speaking rapid Spanish. In my broken version of the language, I attempted to tell him we were lost. I knew enough Spanish to catch the words “right” and “left” strewn together in variation as he tried to explain how to get back to the entrance.
Twenty minutes later, we still hadn’t found the gate that would let us out into the city. Another guard came upon us and seemed annoyed to see us there. Again, I pathetically attempted to ask for directions and received a jumbled response similar to the first guard. Finally, we found the tall wall that surrounds the cemetery and followed that out.
We saw a lot of interesting tourist attractions during our time in Buenos Aires, but none of them matched the splendor and wonder that came from the La Recoleta cemetery. Even with all the time we spent there, there was still so much we didn’t see. It is a destination that is worth a full day of exploration.
Jonna is a travel writer and photographer driven by a curiosity usually reserved for kittens and small children. On sunny days, she can be found on her motorcycle with a backpack full of camera equipment looking for the perfect shot and meeting new friends along the way. Follow her adventures at JonnaTravels.com. Jonna@jonnatravels.com