If I had always taken the advice of others, chances are I would not be where I am today or done the things I have done. In my travels I have found the same thing to be true. If I had always blindly heeded the advice dished out by travel guidebooks, newspapers, or governments, I probably wouldn’t have had the half the fun or learning that I have had. Experience has proven to me that the best way to decide what I should see and do when travelling is to read and listen with half a mind and then discover the rest for myself.
A day trip to La Boca, one of many areas or barrios in Buenos Aires, last week is a good example. Despite the warnings of it just being another tourist trap albeit an unsafe one at that, Hubby and I decided to go and see for ourselves. The obvious question for me was if it was so unsafe, how could it have become one of BA’s most popular places to visit? There had to be more than brightly painted houses to lure people there? All the guidebooks and those we spoke to urged us to take a tour or at least a taxi but for heaven’s sake not a bus. We both agreed that an expensive tour and the taxi were out and the bus would be our means of getting there. So thanks to Wikipedia I was able to brush up on the history and to National Geographic for helping us with where to go once there. Finally, thanks to Hubby for figuring out how the bus system works and which bus or buses would take us there.
At this point I should tell you a bit about the geography and history of La Boca before I take you on our self conducted tour.
Geographically it lies on the low-lying shores of the greatly polluted Riachuelo River at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, hence its name La Boca which is Spanish for ‘the mouth’. This location determined its destiny as an active port for importing and exporting which attracted mostly poor immigrants from Genoa, Italy. The painted houses for which it is famous were born out of poverty and necessity when the first inhabitants used scrap from the shipyards, such as sheet metal, blocks of wood, corrugated iron, and leftover paint to construct their modest houses. Over the years other poor immigrants from Europe, Africa, Arab, Peru, and Paraguay moved in to eke out a hardscrabble living. In the 1950’s a local artist, Benito Quinquela Martin, painted the walls of one of the abandoned streets and erected a stage. This street became the famous El Caminito or open-air museum. Thanks to Martin it became a haven for actors, dancers, and artists who have all contributed to its allure and made it what it is today: BA’s top tourist trap or attraction or however you want to look at it. It lures in hoards of tour buses which have spurred on a lucrative and much needed industry for the area. However, its success has also given rise to hoards of hawkers and hustlers who have contributed to its somewhat dubious reputation. Tourists are constantly warned to hang on to their pocketbooks, not to stray into any of the streets off the beaten track which is the caminito, or to stay after dark for a late dinner. We were also warned about the over-priced restaurants, gaudy knick knacks, and the bland food. After learning all this, why would it still lure so many visitors whether they be typical tour bus types or more independent adventurers like Hubby and me? Read on and you will find out.
Getting to La Boca by bus wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Hubby orchestrated this beautifully. He managed to get us there by taking only two different buses which he hauled off in his usual manner of enlisting as many poor bystanders as he could to help him out. Fortunately for him, the people in BA are more than willing to help their visitors find their way around.
We started our walking tour at the north end of the Avenida Guillermo Brown. Our first stop was at the Casa Amarilla or “yellow house” which is a replica of the home that Guillermo Brown lived in. Brown was an Irishman who came to Argentina to help them fight for their freedom from Brazil and Uruguay.
Our second stop was to take a picture of the Tower of the Ghost. The story goes that a female artist took her life by jumping from the top of the tower. Her spirit is said to still haunt the apartments there.
Our third stop was for a coffee and small ham and cheese meurouzo (a small sweet croissant) to help us continue our walk to the Riachuelo River. From there we got a good look at both the old and new Puente Transborado bridges and the famous stadium of the Boca Juniors soccer team.
The stadium is old and ugly from the outside, but is still the place to see the most exciting soccer you will ever see and a chance to yell your lungs out whenever Argentina plays their main rivals. In La Boca they take their football very seriously. That’s another claim to their fame.
By this time we had come to the caminito where we were confronted with a carnival like atmosphere of brightly coloured houses with lifelike charactures hanging from the balconies, a cobblestone street filled with vendors’ stalls, tables and chairs spilling from the restaurants blaring loud tango music and some demonstrations on how to tango, as well as every other gimmick available to get the tourists to empty their pocket books. Despite all this, I felt no pressure to buy as we walked along taking in some of the tango and shooting lots of pictures.
Spying a little alley way of shops with interesting merchandise, I pulled Hubby in. We landed in a tiny shop selling handcrafted jewellery and other unique accessories managed by a lovely lady, Annabella, who actually became our friend for the day. That is one of the curious traits of many of the Argentinians we have met: they love to talk and get quite personal about their lives if they speak English as she did. We learned so much from her including a great place to have a late lunch.
She did not recommend any of the restaurants that we saw on the caminito but another one around the corner near the old railway track called El Gran Paraiso. We would never have found it on our own, but thanks to Annabella we ended up having one of the best meals we’ve had the whole time we have been in Argentina. This restaurant is located in one of the oldest buildings in La Boca. A huge, rather ugly grille at the doorway doesn’t make for an inviting entrance. However, look past this and you will see tables with colourful umbrellas set in a beautiful garden with large shade trees surrounded by the colourful walls of the buildings. It wasn’t only the setting that made this place special, but also the food and the service. The prices were reasonable, too, which was another surprise since we have found them to be horrendously high in most places putting a damper on us ever eating out. In fact, hadn’t we been told that we would find everything overpriced in La Boca?
We lingered much longer than we had anticipated over lunch. It was now 4 o’clock and in a few hours it would be dark. With the warnings of being there after dark ringing in our ears, we decided we better wend our way back to the port area where we could catch one of the numerous buses going in all directions. The biggest challenge here is making sure you get on the right bus so finding the proper number is important. This you can do by looking at the posts, studying the maps if there are any, or simply asking a fellow passenger as Hubby prefers to do. This seems to work for him so I’ve learned to let him figure it all out. As we were waiting for our bus, we were bombarded with a constant barrage of blue/white and red/green buses all packed with people chanting and waving flags. It didn’t take us long to realize we were witnessing the foreplay which precedes an important game with the Boca Juniors and one of their rivals, in this case a team from Bolivia. Although exciting to see, it was also frustrating because it meant tying up the rest of the traffic and waiting for things to start moving again. This was too much time for my impatient Hubby who decided we should get off our bus and walk to another stop away from this soccer bedlam. After walking for about 20 minutes, I happened to catch a glimpse of a bus similar to the one we had deserted. Realizing it had to be the same one since the driver smiled in recognition, I took the chance of waving it down. Lo and behold he slowed up to let us back on with no additional charge.
The ride back completed what I felt was another day filled with unexpected surprises. Fortunately, they were all good. Ironic that here of all places where we had received so many dire warnings about theft and over pricing we didn’t encounter any of these. We saw and experienced enough to recommend that it’s quite possible to get there on your own, to not spend a ton of money on food and fun, and to simply learn more about what this area is famous for. Amid the gaudy knick knacks and the somewhat seedy areas, the cultural history and sense of neighbourhood is still evident. We never once felt unsafe or pressured by pesky vendors. We did encounter this in Tigre where we least expected because it’s been touted as a very safe place for a family outing. You can read about Tigre in my last post. Instead in La Boca we met some really kind people like Annabelia and the waiter who served us our delicious lunch. I shudder to think that we might have missed this had we listened to all the nay sayers.