La Boca & San Telmo; Buenos Aires, Argentina

Having not got into bed until close to 7am (!) the night before, I had a bit of a well deserved lie in. Martín very kindly offered to pick me up from my hostel and took me on a tour around the areas of La Boca and San Telmo.

The La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires is one of the most vibrant, brightly coloured and recognisable in the city and I could not wait to check it out!

La Boca translates in Spanish as ‘the mouth’ and is so named as it is situated at the mouth of the river that runs along the capital federal’s southern border; the Riachuelo. This proximity to the river is in fact the reason for La Boca’s existence; the barrio used to consist solely of shipyards and of the houses of people who worked in them. The houses were built with cast off ship building materials, meaning that they were largely constructed of materials such as planks, sheet metal and corrugated iron.

Today, the La Boca remains a rough, working class and downbeat neighbourhood, despite the hordes of tourists who descent upon its attractions every day.

One of our first stop offs in the neighbourhood was the La Bombonera stadium which is home to the world famous Boca Juniors. The stadium is decorated in its signature blue and yellow colours; many people think the stadium is a bit of an eyesore whilst others think it looks like a chocolate box. I’m not sure about chocolate box, however it was definitely interesting to see!

Unfortunately there wasn’t a game on when we visited, however it has been said that watching Boca Juniors play their arch rival team; River Plate, is one of the 100 things you should do before you die!

We wandered through the colourful streets before Martín took me across to a little shrine set up under a wooden cover. The shrine included an eclectic mix of offerings, from cigarettes, to skulls, glasses of alcohol to biscuits and flowers. Martín explained that this wasn’t a normal shrine and in fact this was a place that criminals came and prayed to God for forgiveness before and after committing their crimes… safe to say we didn’t linger too long!

La Boca literally is the most interesting place just to wander and enjoy the sites. Around every corner there’s live music playing, food cooking, tango dancers and incredible street art.

Of course, Eva Perón is never too far away….!

Martín explained that historically, because the houses in the neighbourhood had mostly been made of wood, there was an awful lot of fires which ripped through the buildings, killing many of the residents. La Boca was one of the first places to setup a volunteer fire brigade in the world, and still today there are many reminders of the neighbourhood’s difficult past.

One of the most famous streets in La Boca is Caminito which is full of restaurants, cafes, street sellers, music, dancing and souvenir shops. This street is often rammed with tourists however it’s definitely an interesting place to visit! Martín and I popped up onto the balcony of one of the shops; Havana Gaminito which gave us a great birds eye view down to the revellers below.

All across La Boca are little indoor courtyards filled with shops at different levels and often with live music playing for the visitors. We had a wander through one of these which was super cool. I snapped a photo of one of the windows of a shop opposite to where we were standing with its washing line hanging clothes out to dry. That evening, whilst reviewing my photos I felt like I had seen that exact photo before – turns out it was the front cover of my Lonely Planet city guidebook; well, it was a good photo….!

After checking out the shops we wandered down to the waters edge to catch a glimpse of the boats out on the river. Martín explained that actually the areas round here weren’t the safest; La Boca does actually have quite a bad reputation for crime. Now the shrine started to make sense…. The outskirts of these neighbourhoods were super interesting to see!

Martín pointed out a statue of Benito Quinquela Martín, a famous Argentinian painter who was born and raised in La Boca. He also pointed out the very first eye hospital in the country!

What I loved down here by the docks, was the way that even the cobble stones were painted in the typical La Boca colours. I asked Martín where these colours had originated and he explained that the dock workers who lived in this area were so poor that they could only build their houses using cast-away thin pieces of corrugated sheetmetal from the docks. And they painted those houses with cast-away leftover paint. Except they never had enough paint of the same color to cover an entire house, so the houses became a colorful patchwork! Super interesting!

Having spent a couple of hours in La Boca we decided it was time to wander across into the neighbourhood of San Telmo. Every Sunday San Telmo hosts incredible markets which I literally could have spent hours wandering around! You can buy everything and anything from these stalls and its a fab place to find a bargain!

Soon, after spending most of the afternoon wandering, we decided it was time to stop and have a little something to eat. Martín said I had to try a traditional choripan and took me to the coolest little outdoor spot, Piedad Privada to do exactly that! A choripan is a delicious chorizo sausage served in freshly baked bread. It is normally served with spicy chimichurri and marinated aubergine. All I can say about this is ‘wow’ – it was literally delicious. We sat out in the sun, devouring our churrupan whist a band played live music in front of us – perfect!

Energy restored, we continued wandering around San Telmo before popping into Buenos Aire’s equivalent of Borough Market; Mercado San Telmo. This incredible flea market is full of the most incredible looking (and smelling) food stalls, antique stores and coffee roasters. It was definitely great for a little wander.

From here we headed back to the outdoor markets where I introduced Martín to the new game I had invented – ‘Eva spotting’. The rules were simple, the first person to find something in the market to do with Eva Perón wins. It’s safe to say the game was over in minutes… the winner? Me, of course…

Martín had to pop to work for a couple of hours that afternoon. So we decided to stop off for a quick coffee at a cool little spot called Cafe La Poesia which, interestingly, was a place I had earmarked to visit whilst doing my research back in London!

Whilst Martín popped to the office, I headed back to the hostel for a shower and to get ready for the evening ahead.

A little while later, Martín came to pick me up from my hostel and we headed of to meet Juan and Mechi for some dinner. They all agreed that whilst I was in the city I had to try some proper Argentinian pizza (at a more sociable time than 6am…) so we headed to a cool little restaurant called Pizzeria El Cuartito, which I was assured that, having been in operation since 1934, had some of the best pizza in Buenos Aires – yessss!

Half of the Argentine population comes from Italian descendants, so it makes sense that pizza is such a big deal. Working class immigrants brought it over in the late 1800s starting with Naples native Nicolas Vaccarezza, who made the first documented pizza in his La Boca bread oven in 1882. He topped the dough with accessible and affordable ingredients, which in Argentina meant cheese and tomatoes. Over the next decades, immigrants continued to settle and the city experienced an explosion of pizzerias that strayed far from its Italian origins. A whole new pizza beast emerged, oozing with extra cheese on top. Interestingly, there are more pizzerias than steak-centric parrilla restaurants, and many locals proclaim that the high-rising, cheese-smothered slices rivals those of New York, Chicago, and Italy.

We opted for a few different varieties to taste; my favourite by far however was the ‘fuggazeta’ – a delicious slice slathered in cheese and sweet, soft roasted onions – oh wow.

After dinner, we said goodbye to Juan and Mechi whilst Martín and I decided to go and get a night cap at a craft beer place down the road called Covo Birreria which was fab! Craft beer has become super popular across the city in the last couple of years and these sort of bars are found in almost every neighbourhood- super cool!

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