Recoleta Cemetery is drenched, its narrow alleyways slick with rain. I walk through the melancholy heart of the place under dripping leaves, fluorescent-green against the grey sky. A loose, lace-cracked window swings in the soft wind. A visitor in rustling yellow passes me, cursing his sodden map under his breath, then all is silent, everything is still and the faint hum of traffic melts and disintegrates under the raindrops.
Recoleta Cemetery is one of the most-visited spots in Buenos Aires but today it seems deserted. Some people wouldn’t set foot in a cemetery on their travels whatever the weather but this one is different. For this cemetery only a true gothic-grey drizzle will do.
Recoleta Cemetery in the genteel Buenos Aires neighbourhood of the same name is the final resting place of a Who’s Who of Argentine society. Recoleta’s living citizens are posh and well-groomed, so it’s no surprise its cemetery provides those that passed away with prime afterlife real estate. The tombs are status symbols reserved for the wealthiest and the most well-connected figures in the country.
Much of the cemetery’s attraction is as an outdoor art gallery. Gothic is next to Art Deco, Neo-Classic stacked on top of Art Nouveau. Plus, this art gallery is in the form of a mini-city. The towering gates open onto an expansive plaza. Named streets are lined with apartment-sized tombs. None of the resting places are understated; all are elaborately carved and decorated, many with protective stone angels peering down through the gloom. Others have their doors ajar. Cats hide behind iron railings and chase cemetery mice across the black marble.
A map shows you the locations of the most famous graves but paper is useless in this weather. A lost tourist asks me where to find Evita, and I direct him to take the second left, walk two blocks, and Evita is on the right. I follow behind him and watch as a line of visitors files past Recoleta’s most famous resident. Her tomb is slippery black marble and flowers cling to its fortified exterior. Many people come here just to see Eva Perón’s resting place but the cemetery is also home to presidents, military leaders, poets and scientists.
And a few ghosts. Every cemetery needs a ghostly resident or two and Recoleta doesn’t disappoint. Take the urban legend surrounding the 15-year-old Luz María García Velloso. Her tomb is close to the cemetery’s entrance. The story goes that a man walking past the cemetery encounters a young woman dressed in white. They go to a nearby bar and when leaving the girl gets cold and asks to borrow the man’s jacket. For some reason the girl takes the jacket with her when the evening is over. The man calls the number she gave him the next day to get the jacket back but her mother tells him the poor girl died several years ago. He goes to the cemetery because he can’t believe the story and sees – gasp! – his jacket draped over the girl’s tomb.
As I slosh through the puddles to the exit a funeral procession passes by at the end of the alleyway. The scene seems unreal, somehow staged. It’s easy to forget that Recoleta is still in use. On the way out I look up. The tombs are dark and shadowy against the white and grey office buildings that tower outside the walls, and the light from the billboards doesn’t reach inside. A pink-grey city sky wraps the outside world and the cemetery as one, promising more and more rain.