In around 1720, drawn to the area’s tranquillity, which was deemed perfect for meditation or “recollection” (hence the name), Franciscan monks set up a monastery in present-day Recoleta. A hundred years later, after the monks had been ejected by the city governor, La Recoleta Cemetery, at Avenida Quintana and Junín, was created in the monastery’s gardens. One of the world’s most remarkable burial grounds, it presents an exhilarating mixture of architectural whimsy and a panorama of Argentine history. The giant vaults, stacked along avenues inside the high walls, resemble the rooftops of a fanciful Utopian town from above. The necropolis is a city within a city, a lesson in architectural styles and fashions, and a great place to wander, exploring its narrow streets and wide avenues of yews and cypress trees.
The tombs themselves range from simple headstones to bombastic masterpieces built in a variety of styles including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Secessionist, Neoclassical, neo-Byzantine and even neo-Babylonian. The oldest monumental grave, dating from 1836, is that of Juan Facundo Quiroga, the much-feared La Rioja caudillo (local leader) immortalized in the Latin American classic Facundo by Argentine statesman and writer Domingo Sarmiento, also buried here. Facundo’s tomb stands straight ahead of the gateway. Next to it, inscribed with a Borges poem, stands the solemn granite mausoleum occupied by several generations of the eminent Alvear family. The vast majority of tombs in Recoleta belong to similar patrician families of significant means – but not all. Perhaps the most incongruous statue in the cemetery is that of a boxer, in the northwest sector – the final resting place of Angel Firpo, who fought Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight title in 1923. Military heroes, many of them Irish or British seafarers who played a key part in Argentina’s struggle for independence, are also buried here, such as Admiral William Brown. An Argentine hero of Irish origins, at the beginning of the nineteenth century Brown decimated the Spanish fleet in the River Plate estuary. An unusual monument decorated with a beautiful miniature of his frigate, the Hercules, is a highlight of the cemetery’s central plaza.