Inside the coral pink, glowing city of Buenos Aires is a singular stone heart come to life, a world formed of cast marble and concrete.
Outside this cool and calm place, is a steaming city swarming with neon, its geranium-studded balconies framed by shutters trembling to the sounds of tango and traffic. At first glance, these colourful trappings seem to be the center, but it is a necropolis that holds this place together and gives it its pulse: the city of the dead, Recoleta.
The cemetery is known as the City of Angels, and angels with chipped wings greet me as I walk past the pigeon-grey Doric columns at the entrance. I am surrounded by statues of every size and colour of the earth, a cacophony of shapes and styles punctuated by small lanes filled with benches and sleeping cats.
In every direction I look, there are mausoleums: ornate, polished, with bouquets of apricot-scented roses and bundles of prayer cards. Others are in disrepair inside and out, showing scenes of neglectful sorrow. Coffins askew. Padlocks rusted and broken. Splintered doors covered in creeping moss. Plastic lilies long since faded.
In Buenos Aires I have felt alone, disconnected to this busy city. I have longed for quiet slow conversations, but it is a place with a constant beat, a flurry of colour, the quick clapping of action.
In Recoleta, I can finally hear the heartbeat of the city, my ear tuned to the burial ground, where the murmurings of almost five thousand call out. Here lie the elite bourgeoisie and landed gentry who dragged Argentina out of its wildness, into the annals of colonialism, through outbreaks of yellow fever, past a vast desert into a modern urban metropolis in the manner of the great European cities of their forebears.
Recoleta is a city within another, a maze of careful disorder, of miniature boulevards and select neighbourhoods. Walking down one tiny street, following the cobblestoned curves, I am surrounded at every turn by the faces of people whose lives insist on remembrance, dutifully accompanied by solemn muses. Presidents, politicians, poets, playwrights, and movie stars all announce themselves on brass plates, sometimes accompanied by statues depicting them looking fierce, proud, and impossibly stern. Side by side, these bastions of history rest as Art Deco ghosts lean over them, with drapery translucent and glowing alabaster, eyes cast demurely.
Recoleta was named after a group of errant barefoot monks who preferred the governance of Spain over Argentine independence. After they stated their views, the monks were kicked off their land, which was turned into a cemetery in 1822. With over 4,500 mausoleums and underground crypts designated only for the most important, Recoleta is now the most expensive real estate in all of Buenos Aires. But it’s not simply a place for the dead; it’s a place where they come to life, each speaking in whispers from their caskets. Some were skilled orators in life, and continue to capture everyone’s attention in death.
Eva Peron’s voice can be heard here now, ringing out over flower garlands, past lines of waiting admirers, and out into the street. Known as Evita, she was the wife of the famous politician Juan Peron, and a leader in her own right. She now preaches populism from her podium on the other side, her voice drowning out most of the founding fathers of Argentina. While she helped to initiate a mass movement of the people that changed the country and made her a cult figure, she died of complications due to cancer when she was only thirty-three. Her body mysteriously disappeared, and showed up 20 years later. She is now buried in a glass coffin 6m under a miniature pantheon designed to be impenetrable.
Now covered in flowers of dazzling colours, wreaths of palm and fern mixed with red carnations, and banners of marigold with the words “Te Amo, Evita” (I love you, Evita), her final destination attracts people from all over the world. I am drawn to this woman, who began life as an actress and became the spiritual leader of Argentina. I wait in line and when it is my turn, I walk up to the grating that guards the doors to where her body lies and touch the grating, which is worn in places from kisses. One feels her here, hears her words, which are also in bas relief on plaques of brass and copper. My biggest fear in life is to be forgotten. I will come again and I will be millions. Yes, Evita. I hear myself say, I believe you will return and be millions.
The line is pushing and I must pull myself away from her, and I wander around a tall Greco-Roman column of blinding white, a dirty cherub sadly pouring water from a vase forever caught in stone, stone women holding up fallen soldiers. All against a backdrop of shining, blue glass skyscraper windows, high-rise apartments, and lit up bank billboards; the city encroaches, but the voices stop them from going farther. I push myself to listen, to hear the kings and queens of a society that built the ground I stand on, as they tell me about the creation of a country and culture.
A narrow pathway. A dead end. I turn around. A man stands in front of me, the alley impossibly thin: us awkward, stopped in front of one another. He wears a uniform coverall of stained sage green, his hair unruly, his face, unshaven and worn. An aging caretaker of this city of the dead.
He gestures towards a group of stone angels and busts of men perched impossibly high above wings and lions. “Those ones are always talking. They say the same thing over and over. They tell the stories of their lives. They don’t want us to forget.”
I press my ear against a marble wall. Yes, I can hear them. The voices that are the heartbeat of Buenos Aires.
Recoleta Cemetery Calle Junin 1790, Plaza Francesa, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Daily 8a.m.-6p.m. Free entry. Free tour in English on Thur, 11a.m; weather permitting. Feeding of the cats daily, 10a.m.-4p.m. Maps sold at the site. Allow two hours for a self-guided tour.
Amy Gigi Alexander writes tales of place interwoven with memoir and social commentary. She has been published in BBC Travel, World Hum, and Lonely Planet. Her work focuses on being an empowered woman, a solo traveller, and finding the good in the world. She tweets as @amyggalexander.