A La Boca walking tour demonstrated that there is more to this Buenos Aires barrio than painted buildings, slums and football.
“I do not recommend you go there unless you are a priest or a doctor,'” warned Santiago, our guide for the morning, gesturing toward the adjacent block. In case there was any doubt, an effigy of Pope Francis also pointed away from the offending corner.
La Boca is a bit of a strange beast. For one or two blocks, it is super-touristy. The action is centred on El Caminito with its brightly coloured buildings, live tango and flashy art galleries. However, stray off the well-trodden tourist path, and you hit the start of the slums. As I found out on a walking tour of La Boca, there is more to this historic Buenos Aires barrio than Instagrammable streets.
A bit of La Boca’s history
The first part of La Boca walking tour focused on the barrio’s history. Immigration and isolation from the rest of the city has given La Boca’s its distinct identity. The Spanish rocked up at its shores around 1536 and housed African slaves in the area. Fast-forward to 1816 when the Spanish were booted out, Argentina gained its independence and the slaves were freed.
Fourteen years later, there was an influx of immigrants from Genoa, Italy. As Genoa was a port city, they felt at home at Buenos Aires’ waterfront. These new arrivals needed a roof over their heads but could only afford to build houses from metal sheets liberated from the docks. They painted their houses with whatever leftover paint they could lay their hands on but, as they did not have enough paint of the same colour to cover an entire house, a colourful patchwork evolved.
In the 1950s and artist and philanthropist, Quinquela Martínwas, painted the houses in the fashion of these poor immigrants in a bid to revive the area. The result is what we see today in all its multicolour glory.
Street art and politics of La Boca … and dogs dressed as footballers!
This barrio’s street art epitomises its radical politics. This is never demonstrated so eloquently as in the large mural paying tribute to Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the ‘disappeared’. Around 30,000 ‘leftist’ sons and daughters disappeared during the 1976-1983 ‘Dirty War’. These mothers conduct a peaceful protest in front of the Casa Rosado every Thursday, during which they wrap diapers around their heads as makeshift scarves.
Whilst the buildings were extremely photogenic and the history fascinating, perhaps my favourite sight of the morning was the dogs dressed up in football kit to raise money for dogs’ refuge. Deliciously bonkers!
Do you think jeans for dogs will take off?
And finally, did I get to meet Messi? You bet I did! The final stop on the La Boca walking tour was the famous Boca Juniors, the football club that spawned the likes of Diego Maradona and Carlos Tevez.
The practical stuff
- As it is easy to veer off the tourist track I recommend exploring with a guided tour. I used Free Walks Buenos Aires which was excellent. It cost 200 pesos (10 USD).
- There is not a Subte (subway) station close to La Boca. Therefore, if transport is not included as part of a guided tour, you will need to catch a taxi or take a bus.
- I caught the 152 bus from Palermo. It was very straightforward; the stop nearest La Caminito is where the bus terminates and it is short, safe walk along the river from there. Be warned though … with traffic this journey took around 90 minutes! It cost 8.5 pesos (0.5 USD).
- I stayed at the charming and exceptionally friendly Duque Boutique Hotel in trendy Palermo Soho. Highly recommended.
For further information on navigating the city’s transport system, check out my post Getting around Buenos Aires.
Have you been to La Boca? Or met Lionel Messi?
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