“So tell me why we’re going here again?”
It’s a brisk spring morning in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I’m walking with my Uncle Mike through the neighbourhood of Recoleta, home to the renowned Recoleta Cemetery, which we’re in search of today.
“To be honest, I’m not entirely sure,” I confess to him. “All I know is that the cemetery is one of the top places to visit in Buenos Aires. I’ve also heard the mausoleums are arranged in blocks, so that it feels like a small city. It’s supposed to be beautiful.”
My uncle has flown more than 8,046km (5,000 mi) to visit me in South America; now I’m realizing a little research before our time together here might have been helpful…
Opened in 1822, Recoleta was the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, and is now considered one of the best cemeteries in the world — a level of significance to which its numbers alone are a testament. The site is built across 14 acres (or 5.5 hectares); it holds more than 6,400 mausoleums and vaults; and 94 of these have been declared National Historical Monuments and are protected by the state.
Most impressive of all are the names of those buried in Recoleta — presidents and first ladies, such as Eva Perón (also known as Evita), key military generals and admirals, and other public figures. Reading through the list, it feels like a veritable cross-section of Argentine history.
But I don’t know any of this when my uncle and I arrive at the cemetery; all I know is that it is just as beautiful as I’d heard it would be. The first avenue does indeed feel like a city boulevard, lined with elegant black lamp posts and myriad narrow alleyways branching off from it.
So great is it all to take in that I start by focusing on the smaller elements of life we come across — a silver watering can sitting by a black marble mausoleum; a fading bouquet of flowers placed at the foot of a statue; a rusted wheelbarrow overturned at the end of an alley.
At first, it feels like these simple details are the story I’ll take away from Recoleta, evoking the many workers and visitors who bring life to the cemetery every day.
But then, when we least expect it, another story presents itself.
From the cemetery’s main boulevard, we continue down another avenue, passing the tomb of Tomás Guido, a well-known general in the Argentine War of Independence. A few moments later, my uncle stops, retraces his steps, and pauses in front of another mausoleum we just passed.
“Take a look at this, Candace,” he says, calling my attention to the monument’s metal door, which features a window in the shape of a cross. I walk closer to my uncle and see what he’s discovered — that by standing at just the right angle to the door, it’s possible to look through the cross-shaped window and view a stained glass window of Jesus inside the mausoleum.
So far, the predominant palette of Recoleta has been that of faded stone; stone statues, stone marble, stone pathways. To suddenly glimpse this window and its panes of yellow, blue, and orange glass brings a surprising burst of colour to our day.
We try to keep exploring the cemetery, but are soon stopped in our tracks again by another stained glass window, picturing Mary and an infant Jesus.
This time, we see the window first from the mausoleum’s exterior, which has been designed so that the window faces its interior. From the outside, the stained glass window seems simple — comprised only of large panes of solid coloured glass and the silver lead framework holding the panes together.
But then my uncle does the same thing as before — he shifts his perspective, walks around the mausoleum to its entrance, and peers through the door, which is gated. Through the gates, we can again glimpse just a part of the window as it appears from inside — and again, the window’s transformation is astonishing.
Part of our astonishment is due to the colours, which are infinitely more intense inside where there is light passing through the glass; another part is due to the rich level of detail found on the front of the window. What appeared from outside as solid panes of glass now sings with details — carefully rendered faces on Mary and Jesus, bright golden haloes around both their heads, and shading on every fold of fabric.
But for me, the greatest cause of my own astonishment is how we have to physically move ourselves to the front of the mausoleum, peer through metal gates and bars and latticework, and sometimes even bend down or stand on our tiptoes in order to view the windows in full detail. I love how we have to keep shifting in place as we look.
From this moment on — my heart racing from the thrill of discovery — our only quest in the cemetery is to view as many stained glass windows as possible. But for me, the greatest cause of my own astonishment is how we have to physically move ourselves to the front of the mausoleum, peer through metal gates and bars and latticework, and sometimes even bend down or stand on our tiptoes in order to view the windows in full detail. I love how we have to keep shifting in place as we look.
From this moment on — my heart racing from the thrill of discovery — our only quest in the cemetery is to view as many stained glass windows as possible.
Since my visit to Buenos Aires with my uncle, I’ve finally done some research about Recoleta Cemetery, especially trying to learn more about the stained glass windows. But apart from a few other accounts from fellow travellers, I’ve found nothing so far.
In place of practical information about the windows, all I’m left with is my own personal interpretation of what they mean — because I can’t help thinking they were a perfect metaphor for travel itself.
From the outside of a new place, all we can really see is a general outline of its shape; but once we’re on the ground — once we’ve shifted our perspective, that is — each place comes to life for us in vivid colour, detail, and story. Just like a collection of radiant stained glass windows did for me, one grey spring morning in Buenos Aires.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Argentina encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.