A Recollection of La Recoleta

Having, finally, made it (almost) all the way down the length of South America, from Cartagena in Colombia to the Chilean capital of Santiago, then over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza in Argentina, and across the vast pampas to Buenos Aires, I’m at my final stop. And I’ve just enough time here to work off all that barbecued meat and red wine with a stroll around BA’s most famous tourist site, the celebrity cemetery of La Recoleta.

It’s only about two miles from the city centre, El Microcentro, to the northern suburb of Recoleta. Although it’s a hot and sweaty two miles – I’m not high up in the mountains anymore, I’m slap-bang on the Atlantic coast. But it’s a pleasant walk, from the grand European-looking buildings of Plaza de Mayo (including the bright pink Casa Rosada, where Juan and Eva Perón would appear for their adoring fans), through the ritzy neighbourhood of Retiro (with its two British-related monuments of Torre Monumental [formerly Torre de los Ingleses, a minature redbrick version of London’s Big Ben that was renamed after the Falklands War] and Monumento a los Caídos de Malvinas [a memorial to Argentina’s Falklands War dead]), to the exclusive barrio of Recoleta (home to BA’s richest people, both alive and dead).

El Cementerio de la Recoleta is BA’s number one tourist attraction, a veritable city of the dead, where countless tree-lined ‘avenues’ are filled with huge statues and marble tombs. Like the above-ground real estate of northern BA, this expensive plot holds the remains of the city’s most elite members of society, from presidents, military heroes, influential politicians, Nobel Prize winners, and the just-plain rich-and-famous (including Eva Perón aka Evita).

One of the world’s most remarkable burial grounds, La Recoleta is a mixture of over-the-top architecture and simplified Argentinian history. From above, the giant tombs probably resemble the rooftops of some opulent town. The graves themselves range from simple headstones to bombastic masterpieces (complete with winged angels and cobweb-covered statues), and are built in every architectural style one can think of, from Gothic to Baroque to Art Deco. Over 4,000 souls covering over 300 years of Argentinian history are here (some resting more peacefully than others).

Like similar places around the world, the cemetery has its fair share of eerie ghost stories and spooky urban legends, such as the female corpse who rises from her crypt every night and hangs around outside the graveyard picking up men to take her for a drink in the local boozer. But the most famous one recounts the horrible misfortunes of one Rufina Cambacérès. On her 19th birthday in 1902, she died suddenly and mysteriously, and was buried in Recoleta the following day. But, sadly for little Rufi, she wasn’t yet dead; and after clawing and scratching at her coffin lid for several days, she was finally discovered outside her grave, having finally escaped her tomb, but dying (of exhaustion or heart failure) in the process. Poor Rufina had died – twice.

Rufina’s enormous mausoleum is typical of Recoleta, covered in flowery Art Nouveau decoration, with a marble casket and even a wrought iron chandelier. And it’s a regular stop for the tours that go round the cemetery every day. But it (and all the others) are surpassed in popularity by the tomb of the most famous, er, resident of all, Eva Perón.

The second wife of President Juan Perón, and one of Argentina’s most enduringly popular figures, she died in 1952, after undergoing a hysterectomy, a lobotomy, and chemotherapy, in an unsuccessful attempt to beat cervical cancer. Her death sent the country into a frenzy of mourning which would’ve made Princess Diana jealous.

Her embalmed corpse then began an unpredictably strange journey, first being displayed in her former office for two years, before a military coup deposed her husband and left her remains to the whims of the new government. The body then disappeared from the world for 16 years, before it was revealed that she’d been secretly buried in Italy. Her decayed corpse, exhumed in 1971, was flown to Spain, where it spent a few years in her husband’s old dining room. Juan (and his third wife) returned to Argentina to become President (again). But Eva’s body stayed behind in Spain, until Jaun died in office in 1974, and his widow Isabel, the new president, had Eva flown back to Argentina to be with her dead husband. Only then did the Argentinian government finally place her in La Recoleta, 22 years after her death.

Evita’s polished black granite vault, containing many of her most famous quotes from her speeches on bronze plaques, has been her resting place ever since – with the actual coffin sealed inside concrete, to prevent theft (or possibly to prevent a Rufina-style zombie re-awakening). Unlike many other graves, Evita’s isn’t signposted; but it’s easy to locate, simply by following the crowds of people and looking out for the piles of bouquets around it.

Although the dead inhabitants massively outnumber the living visitors, with family members stacked up on top of each other in skyscraper-like mausoleums (plus plenty of room for future occupants), one group of living creatures that does reside here (and seems to thrive here) are the cemetery’s resident cats. The dozens of friendly felines wander round the tombs and nap in the sun at the feet of (and sometimes in the laps of) the statues of the deceased. Nobody seems to know how many there are or how they got here, although one lady who I spy feeding them (she appears to be serving the lucky little buggers chopped-up steak) tells me that they’re mostly unwanted pets who are dumped here. Despite that, all the ones that I see look healthy enough, and the cat lady also tells me that they’re all fed, spayed, and neutered. And most importantly, she says, “There are no rats in Recoleta!”.

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