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Recoleta Cemetery

A series of monuments to wealth, excess and art

Recoleta Cemetery

Let’s talk about death. Specifically, let’s talk about what happens after you die. Even more specifically, let’s talk about what happens after you die when you are a wealthy aristocrat in Buenos Aires, sometime after 1822.

That may seem like an overly decorative way of getting to the point, but when it comes to the dead aristocratic families of the last two centuries, it is nowhere near decorative enough. To see this in action, you need to head to Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Let’s be clear: it is a popular tourist attraction. But even some of the team here at The Explorer Society, whose interest is always avoiding the crowds and seeking out the unknown, rate Recoleta as a must-do for any visitors to Argentina. We should also point out that there are famous cemeteries around the world, like the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris ******or even the ancient Valley of the Kings. However, what separates Recoleta is that whereas other cemeteries might be famous for their celebrity inhabitants or orderly precision, Recoleta is a bonkers mix of excess and one-upmanship. Walking into the cemetery is like walking into a city in miniature, with varying skylines filled with soaring expressions of largesse.

The easiest way to describe what lies within is by mentioning that architectural students across the city often spend their free time in the cemetery. This is because within its walls you have countless representations of different architectural styles, all laid out in easy-to-study forms. There are towering marble mausoleums, Art Deco offerings, baroque and neo-gothic stylings, pyramids, brutalist concrete structures, crypts covered in loose shale rock, obelisks, towering free-standing columns, religious iconography, Masonic imagery and more chubby angels than you can shake a harp at. One of them is a cathedral in miniature form, made when the occupant was denied the opportunity to be buried in a church (so he built his own).

Some of the architectural styles found within

The cemetery is reflective of the larger area it is found in. The suburb of Recoleta was populated by the wealthy elites of the city. They all relocated to this area after several epidemics in an attempt to distance themselves from the ‘unclean’ lower classes (their thoughts, not ours). As the arms race to show off their wealth accelerated and mansions became estates that became city blocks, new areas were needed in which to extol their successes. The cemetery became that expression medium. With a limit to the plot size in effect, the family plot instead reflected the history of the family and the message they wanted to display. The central avenue was the ‘who’s who’ of the country, with Argentina’s founding fathers, presidents, Nobel Prize winners, military leaders and notable names down the way. As an example of the displays involved, the plot belonging to Argentinean Navy founder Admiral William Brown consists of a single green Corinthian column, the green reflective of his homeland of Ireland. It is topped with a model of a ship with wind-blown sails that protrudes into the trees. Around the base of the column, silver-painted plaques depict naval battles he won for Argentina against Brazil and inside a glass pane his ashes are conserved in a bronze urn, cast from cannons of ships he commanded. With almost 5,000 vaults inside the cemetery walls, 94 have been declared National Historical Monuments.

image of Recoleta cemetery main avenue
Admiral William Brown’s green column on the right, with the miniature cathedral at the end of the avenue.

The merely wealthy, unable to claim a spot on the founding avenue, had to differentiate themselves in other ways. They imported marble and materials from Paris and Milan in great slabs and used them to create three-story structures, with two of the three stories beneath the earth. No one is allowed to enter these crypts but the family themselves. In a rare bit of luck, our co-founder Cameron has been inside two of them, including what is regarded as the most beautiful in the cemetery.

“Inside the simpler ones you find vertical staircases leading down multiple storeys, with the walls stacked with ornate wooden coffins,” Cameron explains. “Each coffin is hand carved and features gold, brass and other precious items inlaid. The fancier ones meanwhile have intricate stained glass windows and painted art reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel all over the interior walls, seen by no-one but the family. As you descend, you can see the families history laid out in front of you, from the coffins of the matriarch to the tiny coffins of the children that didn’t get to grow up. It’s a remarkable way to chart a family tree.”

The exterior of the various crypts are all different, some reflecting religious scenes, grand buildings or family tragedies. These are works of art that exist in a cemetery instead of a museum, their adornment being the family crypt instead. And many of the tombs feature amazing backstories. Take the mausoleum of Liliana Crociati, who died in an avalanche on her honeymoon in Austria in the 1970’s. Repatriated to Argentina, her parents reconstructed her childhood bedroom within her tomb, and the entire construction features no stone at all (presumably because of the avalanche). At the entrance, there is a bronze statue of Liliana in her wedding dress, with her beloved pet dog at her side. And then there is the tomb of Rufine Cambaceres, buried in the family plot at age 19. When grave workers discovered her coffin had moved, they feared grave robbers had broken in. What they discovered was much worse. Rufine lay within, scratch marks and bruises on her face and horrifyingly, scratch marks on the inside of the ornate coffin. What they thought was her passing away was in fact just a coma, and she had been buried alive. The distraught family completely rebuilt the tomb and there now stands a statue of Rufine on the outside holding the door.

Tomb with statue of young girl out front
The tomb of Rufine Cambaceres, with her figure holding the door.

The most famous resident however is easily that of Eva Peron. Buried in a seemingly ordinary tomb away from the main thoroughfare, she is buried 5 metres below the ground under very tight security. This has something to do with the fact that her body went missing for over 20 years before finally being found, having been hidden by the Argentinean dictatorship of the time. The most visited tomb in Recoleta, it goes to show that all the money in the world can’t buy you visitors once you are dead. What you do in life matters more.

Buenos Aires is an amazing standalone destination or in combination with Patagonia and Iguazu Falls. Of course, Buenos Aires also a great add-on to for any guest travelling on an Antarctic cruise.

The best way to see Recoleta is early in the morning before the tour buses arrive, and with a local guide. Whilst wandering around is still amazing, it’s discovering the stories behind the tombs that make the experience far more rewarding. That and having someone to help you find your way out when you are done.

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Travel isn’t what is used to be. It used to be undertaken with a sense of adventure and discovery. As the world shrunk, so did our imaginations and over time, manufactured experiences, sponsored travel lists and mass tourism have slowly extinguished that magic. Amazing destinations, catering to the crowds, have become overwhelmed shadows of their former selves.

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