I’d say that the Chacarita Cemetery is hidden away in a quiet and untouristy corner of Buenos Aires, but at 95 hectares this is less a cemetery and more a city of the dead. It’s so huge – the more famous Recoleta Cemetery would fit into Chacarita eighteen times over – that there are roads to take you to its most far flung corners. Its size makes it all the more remarkable that, before a chance discovery that tango legend Carlos Gardel is buried here, I’d never heard of the Chacarita.
It’s not just the size of the cemetery that makes it special though. Its mausoleums and monuments rival those of the Recoleta for their grandeur and beauty; and, while it may not have the sheer number of luminaries that the Recoleta houses for all eternity, fame has left its mark on Chacarita. There are a number of tango glitterati, including pianist, Carlos di Sarli; bandoneon player, Aníbal Troilo; composer, Osvaldo Pugliese; vocalists Ada Falcón and Sofía Bozán; one of the pioneers of tango, Ángel Villoldo; and Carlos Gardel himself.
Finding the final resting place of these greats of tango isn’t exactly easy. There are no maps of the cemetery and no signage once you’re there. We’d walked through the up-and-coming Villa Crespo area to get there and, instead of arriving at the very grand main entrance, we found ourselves at the back entrance. There was no information available, but a nice security guard pointed us in the right direction for Gardel’s tomb. Twenty minutes later we were lost amongst a maze of tombs no closer to finding it than when we were at the entrance.
The dead don’t need shade and a fierce sun was beating down on us as we wandered hopelessly around. Occasionally we’d see people in the distance, but there was no one to ask for help and there were no signposts. We walked to the main entrance and unearthed one of the cemetery’s staff. Our new set of directions led us back into the maze and we were again lost within minutes. We spotted a couple of camera carrying tourists chatting to a gardener. We followed them and finally found the right place.
The upside of being lost was that we’d accidentally wandered around a sizeable part of the cemetery, although lacking a map of the tombs we had no idea which tombs we were seeing. There was no mistaking Gardel’s tomb though, if for no other reason than there was a man from Chile dressed as Gardel having his photo taken next to it. This is a common occurrence apparently, and if you come here on Gardel’s birthday there are dozens of people doing the same.
The Chacarita Cemetery started life in the 1870s thanks to a Yellow Fever epidemic that put the rest of the city’s cemeteries under enormous strain. The new cemetery took the overflow and it grew over the next 140 years to become the largest in the country. Unlike the Recoleta, anyone can be buried here, poor and rich, famous and anonymous. There are even British and German sections dating from the 19th century – they aren’t marked and we couldn’t find them.
The cemetery is popular with actors, film stars, musicians, sports people and dancers. Alfonsina Storni, one of Latin America’s most important poets is buried here; as are prima ballerina, Norma Fontenla; José María Gatica, the nation’s most famous boxer; and aviation pioneer, Jorge Newbery, after whom one of the city’s airports in named. Newbery’s monument is extraordinary. There are several former Argentine Presidents and military dictators here, including Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas in 1982.
We spent a few hours wandering the cemetery, it’s a remarkably peaceful place in the bustling city. Eventually, the heat and lack of shade got the better of us and we decided to head back to Palermo for some lunch. Our visit to Chacarita had been eye-opening though. While Recoleta may be easier to navigate, if you have time to spare it’s well worth making the effort to explore it.