La Boca – Another Unexpected Surprise

The famous El Caminito in La Boca Buenos Aires.

The famous El Caminito in La Boca Buenos Aires.

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.

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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.

Soccer is everywhere on the El Caminito.

Evidence of the Boca soccer team is everywhere.

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.

Graham and Annabilia

Graham and Annabella

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?

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An unexpected guest joins us for lunch.

An unexpected guest joins us for lunch.

I love this!

I love this!

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.

Boca fans.

Boca Juniors fans.

Fans from Bolivia

Fans from Bolivia

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.

Our Trip to Tigre – Facing the Unexpected

Ever since I have been in South America, I have been wrestling with how to deal with unexpected surprises. It seems like the last three months have been full of them most resulting from communication break down and in our case not being able to speak Spanish. A good example of this happened just this past week when Hubby and I visited Tigre, a suburb of Buenos Aires or BA as the ex-pats call it.

Tigre is a suburb to the north of Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata and is a great place to visit if you are looking for an escape from the daily hubbub and noise of the city. The best way to reach it is to take a leisurely, hour-long train ride on the Le Mitre line from the Retiro train station in the city centre.

The Rio de la Plata - Tigre

The Rio de la Plata – Tigre

It was a perfect autumn day, not too hot with clear skies and lots of sun. The ride didn’t provide much in the way of scenery except to reveal how those in this part of the BA suburbs live. The homes are more stately, high rises are fewer, and occasional glimpses of the Rio de la Plata were visible in the distance. The huge Rio de la Plata is the river or gulf (it is called both) which forms a boundary between Uruguay and Argentina and runs into the Atlantic. However, our journey was in no way boring since we did get serenaded by a quartet of singers who managed to grab our attention with traditional Spanish songs along with some modern-day rap.

On the train to Tigre

On the train to Tigre

As we have found since we have been in BA, it’s common to be entertained by all kinds of talent on the trains and subways and to even do some shopping. At certain times of the day, when not too crowded, vendors selling everything from soup to nuts ply the cars and make surprisingly good sales. For the passengers it’s a convenient way to shop and pick up any little item they may need. The nice thing about this marketing scheme is that the vendors don’t pressure the passengers to buy. They run up and down the aisles chanting their spiels or even leaving a sample with each person which they will return to in a few minutes. You simply pass it back if you don’t want it or quickly hand over the money. It’s done effortlessly and with no hassle.

Upon arriving in Tigre exactly one hour later, we quickly headed in the general direction of the Fruit Market and the area where the weekend market is held. Unfortunately, in the middle of the week there are only a handful of shops and restaurants open so the place was quite deserted. However, there are always some who stay open for those of us who venture out to avoid the weekend crowds. We quickly sought out a little restaurant right on the river which had empanadas (the South American version of our sandwich which is a meat, chicken, or vegetable filling wrapped in a kind of dough like pastry) which I had decided I wanted for my lunch.

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What a treat to eat our lunch near the water in the autumn sunlight. Yes, it’s autumn here in this part of the world and probably one of the best times to be here since the days are cooling down to a comfortable 25 degrees. They are also getting shorter which seems odd to us since we are thinking spring and feel they should be getting longer. Oh well, the reversal of the seasons is just another little adjustment we have to deal with here in BA.

After our leisurely, but unfortunately not too tasty lunch, we started out on an exploration of the stores that were open. On the way to the river front, we had spied an interesting looking panderia (bakery) with a huge array of Argentinian baked goodies so decided we would pick up a few items for next morning’s breakfast. Hubby saw they were advertising mate, an Argentine caffeine drink which they claim is better than green tea. Since President Obama had sampled the tea when he was visiting here last week, Hubby was curious as to what we had been missing  so put in an order to the young chap behind the counter.

He brought the tea in a special clay pot with a metal straw attached to the side, a large electric kettle, and a full bag of tea. I thought this was rather strange but didn’t say anything since there have been many things about Argentina customs we have found a bit strange, such as maps that appear to be upside down, too much salt in just about all the restaurant food, and far too many dogs.

We both agreed that the mate was too bitter for our tastes even though it’s supposed to have many health properties and that would be the last time we ever ordered it. After drinking as much as we could so as not to offend our waiter, we asked for our bill. When he presented it to us, we nearly fell off our chairs. The grand total was 150 pesos which in Canadian dollars was $13.50! There had to be a mistake! We had heard about how popular the drink was and its wondrous health benefits but at this cost? Was it this magical? Perhaps if he threw in the whole bag along with the pot then this would justify the price. And if all the health benefits were true, then maybe we were getting our money’s worth? There was room here for some negotiation, or so I thought. Maybe he could lower his price to something more reasonable? The problem was how to communicate this to him when he said, “No Ingles” and we said, “No hablas Espanol”. He bombarded us by speaking rapidly in Spanish which he knew we didn’t understand pretending that he had no idea what we were talking about. Obviously we were at a stalemate. Should we give him something for his service and if so how much, or should we just walk away? Yes, this thought had actually occurred to us. However, being nice Canadians we couldn’t do this so very reluctantly gave in to his demand and paid the bill.

We sat for a while at our side-walk table still in a state of shock. This incident had left a bad taste in our mouths. I could see that Hubby’s shock was rapidly turning into a fury at his conclusion that he had been taken. Meanwhile, I tried to drink some more mate to not only get our money’s worth but to try to get the effect of some of those health benefits. I was right, however, as Hubby went into action by first yelling at our culprit or hapless waiter (at this point I wasn’t sure what he was) and then enlisting the help of anyone near by. The first person he  nabbed was an older woman who smiled and greeted us in French as she walked by our table. He related what had happened and asked her whether this was a fair price. She seemed  aghast at what we had paid and intimated that it really shouldn’t have cost anything as it was more a service to visitors to acquaint them to the wonderful benefits of mate tea. Another young man appeared who spoke fairly good English who said the same thing, but it was obvious that neither of them wanted to get involved in this dispute as they gradually faded into the background. Not inclined to give up easily when it comes to money, Hubby again enlisted a group of about five more people who approached the scene.

One of the group, a woman who spoke very good English and immediately understood what had happened to this couple of unsuspecting tourists, undertook the task of making Hubby’s wishes be known that all he wanted was half his money back or he would get the police involved. Oh dear, at this point I really began to wonder how this would unfold. Would this final ultimatum work? Against the wishes of her friends and possibly family, as we didn’t have a clue who these people were, she barged into the bakery to confront our culprit. Within seconds she came back not with half the money but all of it, handed it to Hubby, and told us to leave quickly. Surprised by this sudden turn of events, we thanked her profusely to which she immediately grabbed us both with a strong embrace planting many kisses on our cheeks before her friends grabbed her to lead her away.

We were left shaking our heads in disbelief at what had just happened. We really didn’t know what to make of it all other than to surmise that the young scoundrel had tried to make a few extra bucks off some naive tourists who spoke no Spanish. On the other hand, we realized once again that as a tourist you always have to be vigilant in a country with a different culture. Argentina and Canada share many similarities in lifestyle and culture making it very comfortable so it’s easy to become complacent. Everyone we have met has bent over backwards to help us with directions, to translate to others when we are having difficulties, and to warn us about watching our personal belongings when in public places. On this particular day we simply weren’t prepared for this unexpected incident. There is also no doubt in my mind that if we had the language skills our outcome would have been less stressful.

This was not the cup our waiter served our mate in. This is a souvenir one I bought at the market.

Our mate was not in this cup.  I bought this as a souvenir and it’s made of metal.

Thankfully the remainder of our day passed with no further surprises. To complete it before heading back to the city, we decided to take a relaxing boat trip up the Rio to see ‘some nature’ – the sales pitch used by the boat operators. A huge catamaran took us past the beautiful estates of the wealthy who have sought out Tigre as their place of escape from the big city. An extra bonus for us was to meet two delightful sisters from England whom we instantly connected with because we all were dying to have a good conversation in English. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel in a foreign country. Perhaps more so when we are beginning to feel the first pangs of travel fatigue and miss having our own language all around us.

A home along the river as seen from our catamarand.

A home along the river as seen from our catamarand.

Me with English sisters - Naomi on the left and Natasha in the middle.

Me with English sisters – Naomi on the left and Natasha in the middle.

So again, as has happened so many times on this South American trip, challenges have arisen quickly and unexpectedly only to be followed by something positive and uplifting. This is the thing about travel. You never know what to expect. All we can say is that it certainly isn’t boring – not for a minute!