The World’s Most Beautiful Cemeteries – La Recoleta, Buenos Aires: A Tour in 32 Photos

Last year a CNN correspondent listed Buenos Aires’s la Recoleta among the world’s 10 most beautiful cemeteries. As pomposity, style and grandeur go, the final resting place for many of Argentina’s most rich and powerful who passed on over the past two centuries is difficult to beat. And it is also beautiful. Here is a gallery of 32 photos to prove my point.

Inaugurated in November 1822, the cemetery since named for the affluent neighborhood in Buenos Aires in which it rests has grown to 5.5 hectares (14 acres) in size and to contain 4,691 vaults, many of them ornately decorated and intricately sculpted.

The main streets are pleasantly tree-lined, evoking a not-so-far away eternal spring, or less ethereally, a relaxing big city park where it’s easy to escape the hubbub that is just outside the walls that seal the cemetery in. I was fortunate to have my two-hour stroll around the grounds interrupted by a refreshing summer rain; there really is no better time to visit with the ivy-bathed marble gods and goddesses in South America’s most famous necropolis. [See a 30-second video of the la Recoleta rains here.]

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Most architectural styles of the last half millennium are on display —Baroque, neo-gothic, art deco and art nouveau among them— giving the cemetery a very European feel. Indeed most of the mausoleums, monuments and sculptures built between 1880 and 1930 were made with materials imported from Paris and Milan, not unlike many of the city’s newcomers who migrated to Argentina around the turn of the last century.

It’s not all glamour and pomposity. Many of the tombs have fallen into disrepair; shattered windows and broken coffins aren’t too difficult to find inside the crumbling crypts. Architecturally it’s crowded. Many mausoleums have been built so close together that it’s impossible to walk between or around them.

It’s among the most popular sites in the Argentine capital, with tourists far out-numbering mourners. La Recoleta has become famous for its cats too, and the spiders weaving webs over and around just about every life-sized statue and monument.

The most popular destination is the Duarte family vault where arguably the world’s best known Argentine, Eva Peron, is buried. Five images below.

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An aside: I used Buenos Aires: A Cultural History by Jason Wilson as my main guidebook around the city while visiting, referring to it and stealing notes from it much more often than from my Lonely Planet. It’s a fascinating and authoritative look at the city through the words of novelists, travelers, journalists and poets, organized primarily by neighborhood. If you’re planning a visit, I strongly suggest reading it before you arrive. And continue to once you’re there. And take lots of notes. On Recoleta, Wilson collected and recollected:

V.S. Naipaul called it a “mimic city”; Juan Jose Sebreli mocked it as “the last surprise party of a dying class”; Florence Escardo called in a “cyst” on the city; Ezequiel Martinez Estrada more simply, in a poem, called it “the miniature city.” The Argentine novelist Martin Cullen more exactly evoked “a palladian miniature of the city, with illusional vistas.”

 

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Below, the tomb of Raúl Alfonsín, Argentina’s first president after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983. First two images show the reflection of afternoon light across the walkway from Alfonsín’s mausoleum. [More about Argentina’s Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s is here.]

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The high walls that surround it on all sides played leading roles in many episodes of the country’s darker past: early 19th century caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas had enemies executed there and more recently during the Dirty War of the 1970s paramilitary assassins in the government’s employ dumped bodies over them. Again from Wilson:

In his Mis memorias [My Reminiscences, 1904] Lucio Mansilla, Rosas’ nephew, remembered how the Recoleta was associated with death-sqyad activity: “We followed along the corrales, or slaughter house, that lay behind the Recoleta, so many crows! The horses got scared and refused to budge. They did not want to go forward. It was useless egging them on, beating them.. What is this? The driver answered without hesitation, ‘some dead men with their throats slit.”

 

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And finally just a few lines from this translation of La Recoleta, a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, one of Argentina’s most respected men of letters:

Vibrant in swords and passion
and asleep in the ivy,
life exists alone.

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Cemeterio de la Recoleta
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Date: January 2013
Weather conditions: sunny, cloudy, rainy, post-rain

All images (c) Bob Ramsak 2014. All rights reserved.
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