The neighborhood that I had been warned in my guidebook as being the most touristy turned out to be the one I enjoyed visiting the most. La Boca is one of the 48 barrios or neighborhoods in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires and is undoubtedly one of its most colorful. Its name La Boca means mouth in Spanish and is attributed to the fact that the barrio sits at the mouth of the Riacheulo River.
When we asked for bus directions to La Boca from the staff at the hostel where we were staying, we were advised to ten cuidado (be careful) with our belongings as pickpockets were rampant there. From what I had read La Boca was a mix of tourists (at least on the neighborhood’s main stretches) and nitty gritty (usually what tourists would prefer not to see).
As the bus progressed, the look and feel of neighborhoods we were driving through changed considerably. We went from relative upscale to a tough urban feel, the latter complete with copious amounts of graffiti. (Buenos Aires as a whole had a ton of graffiti, usually political messages and not graffiti art.) It wasn’t too surprising that the area had become grittier since, after all, we were traveling into what at one time was the principal port of Buenos Aires (today it is Puerto Madero). Excluding today’s fashionable concept of urban renewal, port cities no matter the city, country or continent, have always had a reputation as being home to questionable characters and seedy establishments; La Boca was no exception.
While I had enjoyed the time I’d already spent in Buenos Aires-seeing the famed Casa Rosada where first lady Eva Peron spoke to her mass followers, my slightly overpriced dulce de leche ice cream at Cafe Tortoni, my failed attempts at dancing the tango, my enjoyment at seeing a professional tango performance-La Boca finally fulfilled my envisions of a touristy Buenos Aires.
One of the most famous areas of La Boca is El Caminito, which in Spanish means “little path.” Today El Caminito is home to a street museum thanks to the efforts of one man, artist Benito Quinquela Martin, who lived nearby. In the 1900s a train ran through El Caminito but once the rail line shuttered in 1954, the area became a landfill and a most hideous sight for residents who lived nearby. Martin prepared the walls facing the abandoned street, painting them in a variety of colors. So what had once been a landfill turned into one of the most popular tourist sights in Buenos Aires. El Caminito is synonymous with Argentine sights. Although Argentina is drastically different from its Spanish speaking neighbors in the north, El Caminito greatly reminded me of houses in Mexico and Nicaragua that were painted in bright, eye catching colors.
La Boca is said to be where tango originated. At one time the tango was a most scandalous dance due to its risque moves and styles. It was not danced by the upper echelon, but was popularized and embraced by lower classes, the working people. Although many street corners in Buenos Aires feature tango dancers, in La Boca you are in the corazon (the heart) of the tango dance. In La Boca I watched the tangueros performing and was just amazed by the fluidity of their movements, the gracefulness of their feet. It is a dance the Argentine people are born with and die with, one that is danced by all, from young to old.
To serious travelers it may sound cursi or cheesy, but La Boca had down to earth souvenirs which I was frankly thrilled about. They weren’t the fine leather jackets I saw in the upscale shopping malls or the hand crafted bombillas (what the traditional South American drink mate is drunk from) that were in the native crafts market by the cabildo. Rather I found a miniature size painting of tango dancers against the backdrop of the famous obelisk, and a stuffed cow that had the Argentine flag on it. (While I thought it was odd to see a cow for a stuffed animal I was in Argentina where after all, the cow is Dios or God, at least from a culinary standpoint.)
The world famous La Bombonera, home to the Boca Juniors, the most esteemed football club in Argentina and also where the country’s most famous sportsman, Diego Maradona, played during his glory days, is located in La Boca. The stadium seats 49,000 spectactors and as I have a semi-mild aversion to massive crowds, especially fanatical sports fans (I’ve found in my travels and living experiences abroad that football fans are some of the worst for their level of intensity), I did not purchase tickets to attend a game of the Boca Juniors. Our hostel actually bought tickets so that you could go as a group with one of the hostel employees since the games are utter madness, more so in the stands than perhaps on the field.
La Boca was fun, interesting, and supplied me with some terrific photos. It was everything that the ritzy and upscale neighborhoods like San Telmo and Recoleta were not. It’s not a place I would need to visit repeatedly like some neighborhoods and areas abroad are (Seville’s Santa Cruz or Paris’ Ile de la Cite), but for a first time visitor, it’s simply a lot of fun.