Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires’ walled necropolis of the rich and famous, is one of the city’s most popular attractions. It’s like going to Egypt and visiting the pyramids – you kind of have to do it.Opened in 1822 as the city’s first public cemetery (after the expulsion of the Franciscan monks, who chose the tranquil neighbourhood as a place for recollection), La Recoleta became the favoured resting place of Argentine high society. If you’ve done your reading before coming to Buenos Aires (or even just glanced at the street names in this city), names like Belgrano, Ocampo, Pueyrredón, and Alvear will stand out as you wander among the mausoleums.
But despite the abundance of writers, politicians, generals, and philanthropists, most visitors come to La Recoleta to see one grave and one grave only – that of Evita Perón, condemned by some as a power-hungry opportunist and revered by others as a champion of the poor. On your way in, you will probably be accosted by any number of friendly yet tenacious tour guides, maps in hand, breathlessly greeting you with “Hola where are you from Evita’s grave is right here…”
La Recoleta is home to some 4,690 other graves, however, and if you look beyond the most powerful and well-known residents, you’ll find a cemetery full of interesting and obscure stories, from bloodthirsty tyrants to ill-fated lovers. We at the Indy have compiled the top 5 most interesting mausoleums you may not have heard of.
1. Juan Facundo Quiroga
As you enter the cemetery and begin walking down its central path, you are struck immediately by the silent figure looming just to the left, a beautiful hooded Virgin looking sullenly down upon the tour groups and maintenance workers. She stands upon a white column, a plaque below her proclaiming “FACUNDO.”
Early Argentine history is peppered with colourful characters – tyrants, gauchos, viceroys and smugglers – whose immense personalities inspired legends as mythical and savage as the wild country they found themselves in. Juan Facundo Quiroga is among the most notorious of these individuals, and for that he makes it to the top of our list.
Born in the province of La Rioja in 1788 to a traditional Creole family, Facundo earned the nickname “Tiger of the Plains” as a teenager for allegedly killing a cougar. After attempting to enlist with General San Martín’s cavalry regiment, he was arrested (most likely for fighting), and subsequently killed a number of his captors with the very handcuffs they had arrested him with, in what became known as the “Massacre of San Luis.”
You may not think that cougar-killing and wholesale slaughter are the best ways to start a political career, but they did the trick for Facundo. After the wars of independence and the subsequent power vacuum created by the collapse of the government in 1820, he became one of the many caudillos, or strongmen, ruling the provinces. He is most well-known as the namesake of Domingo F. Sarmiento’s ‘Facundo: or, Civilisation and Barbarism’, the classic account of the struggle between the forces of the country and city in 19th-century Argentina.
Facundo met his end in 1835 when his caravan was ambushed at Barranca Yaco, between Córdoba and Santiago del Estero. Sarmiento suggests that it was Juan Manuel Rosas, Facundo’s boss and de facto leader of the country, who ordered the assassination; whether this is true or not, we know that Rosas, perhaps feeling guilty, had his former friends’ remains moved to La Recoleta in 1836. Today, the “Tiger of the Plains” is no more harmful than the feral cats that sunbathe on his tomb.
2. Liliana Crociati de Szaszak
La Recoleta is definitely not lacking in tales of unrequited love, premature burial, or youth struck down in its prime. Liliana Crociati de Szaszak falls into this last category, and her sad story continues to draw curious and sympathetic visitors.
The daughter of an Italian painter and poet, Liliana was enjoying her honeymoon in the Austrian Alps in 1970 when an avalanche struck the hotel she and her husband were staying in. The 26-year-old was smothered to death – allegedly, her dog Sabú died at that same instant, thousands of miles away in Argentina.
Liliana’s grave remains one of the most unique in the entire cemetery. Designed by her distraught mother, it is made entirely of wood and glass – no stone was used in its construction – and features narrow gothic windows. A plaque displays a poem in Italian, written by her father, who is left with nothing but questions after his daughter’s senseless death. The tomb itself is said to be modelled on the room Liliana inhabited as a young girl.
Liliana stands outside the tomb, a Tim Burton-esque bronze statue tinted bluish-green. She is depicted wearing the wedding dress she is buried in, her right hand resting on Sabú’s head. To find her, follow the signs to Sarmiento’s mausoleum – she’s along the way, gazing languidly at the broken tiles.
3. Luis Vernet
Piracy, intrigue, murderous gauchos and feral cows – these are not the first things that come to mind when viewing the small, neglected white tomb of Luis Vernet, but they all come into play in the story of this strange man.
Born in 1791 in Hamburg to a family of French Huguenot descent, Vernet had a knack for money-making schemes and an opportunistic nature that took him to the ends of the earth. In 1818 he immigrated to the newly independent United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, married a Uruguayan woman, and established an estancia south of Buenos Aires, in what was then the southernmost frontier of the country.
After a few years of rounding up and slaughtering cattle in the pampas, Vernet decided to extend his business to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, hoping to exploit the wild cattle population and establish a monopoly over the seal hunting trade. Ever the businessman, he made sure he had permission from both the Argentine and British governments before embarking on this venture. When he was appointed governor of the Malvinas by the Buenos Aires government in 1829, he assured the frazzled British consulate that he was only in it for the money.
Vernet was labelled a “pirate” by the United States government in 1831 for seizing three North American ships that had violated his restrictions on seal hunting. From then on, his influence as governor was tenuous at best. The islands experienced a brief period of unrest in which Matthew Brisbane, Vernet’s former partner, was murdered along with four others by a band of riotous gauchos. In 1834 the British took formal control of the territory, and Vernet retired to a life of obscurity and bankruptcy in San Isidro.
His tomb was declared a national monument in 1983, shortly after the Falkands/Malvinas War. He is buried with his family, including a daughter named “Malvina”, who was born on the islands. Continue past Liliana Crociati towards the rear of the cemetery to find it, on the right-hand side.
4. Luis Angel Firpo
Long before Sergio “Maravilla” Martínez, Luis Angel Firpo was Argentina’s favourite son in the boxing world. His tomb, a modern mausoleum of black marble, is located against the far wall of the cemetery, to the left of centre. Despite being surrounded by some of the more grandiose tombs in La Recoleta, it’s impossible to miss – just look for the life-size statue wearing the boxing robe.
Firpo was born in Junín in 1894 and trained at the Almagro Boxing Club in Buenos Aires. He was known as the “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” and is famous for being the first Latin American to challenge for the heavyweight title. His fight against Jack Dempsey in Madison Square Garden in 1923 was the very first sporting event broadcast over the radio in Argentina (a young Julio Cortázar was among the listeners) and its anniversary, 14th September, is now celebrated as Boxer’s Day.
Despite being sent flying out of the ring by one of the Wild Bull’s punches, Dempsey was awarded the victory, a decision so controversial that some anticipated a diplomatic conflict between the United States and Argentina. Although he failed to gain the title, Firpo returned to Argentina a hero, and continued boxing until 1936. He retired to a cattle ranch in Buenos Aires province, and passed away in 1960.
5. Elisa Brown
In La Recoleta’s central plaza you can see the tall green monument holding the remains of Guillermo Brown, the Irish-born founder of Argentina’s navy. The unique tomb is adorned with silver plaques commemorating Brown’s victories in the early years of Argentina’s nationhood, and the bronze urn he rests in is actually made from the melted-down cannons of one of the ships he commanded.
Brown’s life is interesting enough in its own right – he was press-ganged into the British navy, sabotaged his own ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and escaped from a French prison before seeking a new life in South America. But the story of his daughter Elisa, whose small wooden urn lies hidden behind her father’s, could come straight from the pages of a 19th-century romance novel.
Elisa and the rest of the Brown family made their home in the barrio of La Boca. She and a young Scottish sailor named Francisco Drummond were engaged to be married in December of 1827, but the Cisplatine War, a post-independence conflict between Argentina and the Empire of Brazil for control of modern-day Uruguay, called Drummond away. He was killed in the ill-fated Battle of Monte Santiago, and it was Elisa’s father who delivered the news. Eight months later, having “slipped into a quiet madness,” Elisa threw herself into the Río de la Plata and drowned, aged 17.
She was buried next to her fiancé at the Iglesia del Socorro, Buenos Aires’ first Protestant cemetery, but her remains were later moved to La Recoleta at her father’s request.
La Recoleta Cemetery is open daily 7am to 5pm, free. Save yourself the $10 they charge for maps at the entrance; there’s a perfectly good free map located just beyond the cemetery gates, to the left. Tombs are numbered on a grid system. To learn more about other individuals interred here, take advantage of the touchscreen archives in the cemetery office.
Content originally appeared at The Argentina Independent.