Es la catedral (It’s the cathedral), exclaims a portly middle-aged man. He’s reverently pointing to the stadium owned by the Boca Juniors, one of Argentina’s top football clubs. The team is much loved by fans throughout Argentina and adoration tops out here in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Boca. But football is not the only thing that defines this port-side barrio. La Boca is the birthplace of tango; it’s home to the most colourful street in all of Buenos Aires; and its rich history has shaped arts, culture and politics. Even on this cold blustery day, La Boca’s passion is palpable.
Mike and I are addicted to Free Walking Tours and have had great experiences in many cities. Buenos Aires is no exception; we’re on our third walking tour in as many days. We arrive at our meeting point in La Boca and it’s pouring (our only bad weather day in three weeks in Argentina). Luke our guide, an American who has called Buenos Aires home for seven years, is so knowledgable and engaging that we almost forget about the rain.
Prior to 1880, only about one million people lived in Argentina. Between 1880-1930, six million immigrants arrived at the old port of La Boca. Most of them were young men, labourers and tradespeople lured by the promise of free land and housing. The majority came from Italy, which explains why as many as 62% of current Argentinians have some degree of Italian descent.
The promise of free housing didn’t happen and most immigrants ended up in conventillos (tenements). Luke explains how these tenements took on a look of their own as residents gathered scrap material at their work places, mostly at the dock yards—corrugated metal, wood and paint. The assorted paint remnants created a kaleidoscope of colours, since refreshed and on brilliant display around El Caminito (Little Walkway). It’s normally a very touristy place, but today the rain has kept people away.
We explore the little streets around La Caminito and stop to watch a couple dancing a tango on the covered terrace of a restaurant. There’s only a handful of guests and I feel sorry for the dancers. Luke tells us that tango originated from many different musical traditions brought be Italian, Spanish, Russian and German immigrants. Initially, tango was danced by two men due to the shortage of women (80% of then La Boca residents were men). Tango was at first frowned upon by the Buenos Aires upper class. It wasn’t until it was introduced at the Paris Opera House that tango found favour beyond La Boca.
The rain intensifies as we stand in front of several massive wall murals. Their messages are riveting and I manage to temporarily forget the cold seeping through my body. One of them, emblazoned with the words Republica de la Boca tells the story of late 19th century locals, tired of low wages and poor working conditions, who boldly decide to liberate themselves by forming their own government. It only lasted a few days, but the message still resonates with today’s working class La Boca residents who have a very strong neighbourhood identity.
The most poignant mural for me is the one depicting the Argentinian tragedy of the 70s and 80s were an estimated 30,000 people “disappeared” at the hands of the military dictatorship. Victims included anyone thought to be a political or ideological threat to the government (students, union leaders, journalists…). Out of the tragedy was born Argentina’s most recognized human rights organization: Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo). Beginning in 1977, a group of mothers in an effort to learn what happened to their children, started marching in front of the presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo. To this day, in their iconic white head scarves, they continue to gather there every Thursday afternoon.
The mural is sobering and I’m glad we end the tour on a high note outside La Bombonera (the chocolate box), yet another nickname for La Boca’s famous football stadium. Luke tells us that the stadium actually shakes when there’s a game on. Fans say that it’s “the pulsing heart of God”. How’s that for passion.
I’m shivering as our waterlogged tour disbands. Luke directs us to a local parrilla (grill restaurant). It’s warm and cozy and filled with locals munching on huge pieces of grilled meats.
We’d hoped to do more wandering after lunch but the rain hasn’t let up. Perhaps it’s a blessing because we end up at the fascinating Museo Benito Quinquela Martin. The painter Benito Quinquela Martín (1890–1977), is a local hero who is sometimes referred to as the godfather of La Boca. His paintings of labouring men and billowing smokestacks captures the rawness of early La Boca that had so much influence on Argentina and beyond.
A few tips:
- The touristy area around El Caminito is generally safe, but we were warned by several sources not to venture beyond.
- Leave yourself enough time to get to La Boca. It’s a fair distance from some other part of Buenos Aires and we were surprised how long it took us to get there from Palermo on public transit.
- Free Walks Buenos Aires has daily “free” tours of several parts of the city, where participants pay what they feel the tour is worth/what their budget allows. The La Boca tour is one that actually has a nominal fee attached. Highly recommended.
- A super fascinating way to learn more about the lives of early European immigrants to Buenos Aires is at a tour of El Zanjón de Grandos—a fabulously restored old mansion in neighbouring San Telmo that sits atop a series of underground tunnels that date back to the city’s earliest settlements.
I just got back from four weeks of cycling in southwestern Germany and Alsace, French. Lots to come on our “Tour du Vin und Kuchen” (Wine and Cake Tour).