Updated post: 17/11/2018 | November 2018

Did you know that turtles make excellent water sanitisers? Or that Argentina was the first South American country to abolish slavery?  I found out this, and so much more, during a visit to El Zanjón in San Telmo.

San Telmo is what most people visualise when you mention Buenos Aires. The cobbled streets, the markets, the tango dancers in its main square. But don’t miss the opportunity to travel back in time by visiting El Zanjón, a 19th-century mansion, which is an underground time-machine into San Telmo’s past.

A short history of San Telmo

The faded grandeur of San Telmo’s buildings bears witness to it once being the richest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. From its humble beginnings as home to the city’s dockworkers and brickmakers in the 17th century, it subsequently gained importance as Buenos Aires’s centre of industry and commerce. The barrio’s fortunes grew during the 19th century with the installation of lighting, sewers and running water, attracting more affluent residents who built opulent homes.

Walking by - San Telmo Buenos Aires
Walking by – San Telmo, Buenos Aires

However, San Telmo’s fortunes went into decline in 1871 when a yellow fever epidemic struck. This claimed over 100,000 souls, and those who could afford it fled north in droves, establishing what is today Barrio Norte.

Many of their abandoned properties simply fell vacant, but the larger homes were turned into tenements (conventillos) to accommodate the influx of European immigrants who arrived in Argentina between 1875 and 1930. These immigrants also led to the rapid popularisation of tango in the neighbourhood. As they became more affluent, they moved out and local artists took their place, attracted by San Telmo’s bohemian vibe.

El Zanjón – exploring San Telmo’s history

In 1985, Jorge Eckstein, a long-time resident of San Telmo, bought an abandoned conventillo near his home with the intention of turning it into a restaurant. This conventillo was formerly El Zanjón, a mansion dating from 1830. Early in the renovations, he stumbled upon what would become Argentina’s largest private archaeological site.

Excavations unearthed all sorts of treasures: pottery, cutlery, jewellery. But the most exciting find was a network of tunnels, once used to channel water. Following the yellow-fever outbreak, they were sealed off but have now been restored. A superb hour-long guided tour (in English and Spanish) transports you through this atmospheric labyrinth.

Part of the tunnel network of El Zanjon San Telmo
Part of the tunnel network of El Zanjon, San Telmo

As excavation is ongoing, further treasures may be unearthed. What is clear that San Telmo’s dining scene’s loss has been archaeology’s gain.

Plaza Dorrego

No visit to San Telmo would be complete without a visit to Plaza Dorrego. I visited midweek to find a peaceful, picturesque square filled with people enjoying an afternoon drink in the autumn sunshine.

Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo
Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo

However, visit on a Sunday, and it is transformed with a craft market and live tango dancers. Arrive early to bag a prime position and sharpen those elbows!

How to visit El Zanjón

  • Getting there – El Zanjón is at Defensa 755.
  • The easiest way to get to San Telmo is by subway. Take the Subte Line D to Station Catedral or Line A to Station Plaza de Mayo. You will come out at Plaza de Mayo. From there, just walk down Defensa.
  • Visiting El Zanjon – A visit is only possible on a guided tour, which takes 45 – 60 minutes. Check their website for times.
  • Admission price is 450 pesos (12 USD).
  • Staying there – I stayed at the charming and exceptionally friendly Duque Boutique Hotel in trendy Palermo Soho. Highly recommended.
  • Getting around – click here for help in getting around in Buenos Aires. 
  • Other things to do – looking for other places to visit in Buenos Aires? If so, these posts will help you on your way:
  • The day I met Messi; A walking tour of La Boca
  • Finding Eva Peron in Recoleta Cemetery
  • Top five things to do in Buenos Aires

Have you been to El Zanjon? Or do you have any favourite spots in San Telmo?

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