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.
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.
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.
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.
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!