One of the main attractions of Buenos Aires is Caminito in La Boca, and I wanted to explore it beyond the touristic side. So I talked to locals and walked back to the city center, which gave me an insight on how it was and it is to live there.
I had mixed feelings regarding La Boca and Caminito.
Caminito is one of the main attractions in Buenos Aires, an oasis of colorful buildings in the middle of the city. It’s full of souvenir shops, restaurants and tango. A very touristic place.
Would it be worth a visit? Would it be the real Buenos Aires?
On the other hand, La Boca (where Caminito is), is one of the historical quarters of the city, so it could be interesting.
In addition, I learnt that it’s possible to explore touristic places beyond the touristic side, discovering a hidden world that rewards us with unknown experiences and deeper understanding.
So I decided to go, and explore La Boca beyond Caminito, by walk.
How to go to Caminito
I discarded the taxi and the hop-on hop-off bus because they were expensive and I prefer other means of transport.
The local bus seemed a good option, buses 152 and 64 went there, but my explorer side wanted to walk.
La Boca is a poor quarter. Could it be dangerous?
On one hand I had read that nobody (meaning no tourist) walks there. On the other hand, I had seen a blog post from an Argentinian blogger about La Boca. Ok, she’s a local, but if she was there, it couldn’t be that dangerous, right?
At the end I decided to go to Caminito by local bus, and come back by walk.
I took some precautions: I wore clothes that didn’t immediately identify me as a tourist, left my hand bag at the hostel, and took only a bit of money, my camera (cannot live without!) and my phone (to have access to the maps).
I would ask locals about their opinion and I believed that after several months traveling alone my intuition would tell me if it was safe.
History: the hard origin of La Boca
Once I got off the bus it was easy to find Caminito. The colorful houses, souvenir shops and tourists were easy to see.
Caminito is indeed a picturesque place. It consists on 2-3 blocks of colorful houses, souvenir shops, art centers, restaurants with tango shows and many, many tourists.
You might wonder: why are the houses so colorful there? Nowhere else in Buenos Aires looks like this.
I was about to learn that it was for historical reasons.
I wandered without direction until I entered a cultural center composed by several shops. I spent some time inside an arts shop while other visitors came in and out. Finally I started talking to Marta, the artist and owner of the shop, who told me about the origin of Caminito.
Caminito was first populated by the men who worked at the harbor, mostly Spanish and Italian immigrants. They lived in “conventillos”, wooden buildings painted with left-over paint, which is why they were so colorful.
“Conventillos” had a shared kitchen and bathroom, and several men could share a single room, or even share the bed if they were working and sleeping on a different schedule. It was so cold that people used to light a fire in the room, causing accidents and getting people killed.
Times were hard.
Whenever a man managed to bring the family they would get a private room for the whole family. They were still sharing the kitchen and bathroom.
Marta told me that the cultural center where we were had been a “conventillo”, and the shops used to be the rooms were people lived.
The tale of a Spanish immigrant
While we were talking a friend of Marta who also worked in Caminito came in and joined the conversation. Later on I visited her shop and she told me her story.
She was born in Galicia (Spain) and emigrated to Buenos Aires with her family when she was only 3 years old. They spent one month in a ship. Her mother fell sick and she was closed in the room since she was too young to wander around. Her older sister got the food for them.
She showed me the vault they used to carry their belongings from Spain. It was an old vault, like the ones I had only seen in films: old and wooden.
They lived in a shared building for several years. It was like a “conventillo” but fortunately they shared it only with relatives. It took them 14 years of work to be able to buy their own house.
Tourism: how Caminito became an attraction
So Caminito was an historial quarter, and a poor one.
How come it became a tourist attraction?
Marta told me that the origin of tourism in Caminito had been tango. Then Peruvians started selling art in the streets, and finally all was arranged for tourism. However, with the increasing cost of living in Buenos Aires tourism is decaying, not only in Caminito but in the whole city.
Exploring La Boca outside Caminito
I left the cultural center feeling both happy and moved.
Happy because in spite of being a touristic place the history and the essence of La Boca were there, and it was worth a visit.
Moved because of the stories I had heard.
I walked again without direction. I observed the colorful buildings with new eyes, thinking about the first people who had lived there in hard conditions.
At the end of the street, I kept walking outside Caminito and into La Boca. There were less people and it was less picturesque, but there were still some colorful buildings and there was a lot of street art.
Marta had confirmed that there are dangerous streets in La Boca, and she recommended me to pay attention and not to go to the left. I checked the map: the stadium of Boca Juniors football team (La Bombonera) was all straight.
A few streets from Caminito I found my cheapest lunch in Buenos Aires: lentils with vegetables and meat. I ate them on a bench and continued my walk towards La Bombonera.
I observed my surroundings, listening to my intuition in case there were signals of alarm. But there were just normal people in the streets: women with a handbag and jewelry, families with kids, teenagers looking at their smartphones, old people sitting and talking.
I passed by a market and couldn’t resist the temptation to enter. I like markets. It was quite a particular one, since they didn’t sell food but clothes and other items, and there were food stalls. I could have had lunch there as well.
I didn’t feel unsafe and reached La Bombonera without any problems. Lots of tourists were already around the yellow and blue stadium.
An Argentinian I met in Salta had told me the legend of the colors of Boca Juniors. When the football club was created, they decided to take the colors of the first ship that would enter the harbor. It was a Swedish ship, and so they took yellow and blue.
I left the stadium behind and kept walking to San Telmo, the neighboring quarter. I didn’t see any more tourists, but the streets felt safe. It was a normal city with normal people and old buildings, and it even reminded me of the old part of Barcelona.
It didn’t take me long to arrive to Parque Lezema, in the limit with San Telmo, where some people were sleeping on benches or on the grass. It was still siesta time.
Talking to the local women had given me an insight on how it was living there, and walking back allowed me to discover La Boca beyond the touristic side.
Was it crazy to walk back? Personally, I don’t think so.
It’s true that there are dangerous streets and robbery does happen, but it was midday and the streets where I was felt completely normal. I wouldn’t have done it in the night. I think it’s good to take precautions, listen to our intuition and specially ask locals for advice.
Have you been to La Boca or Caminito? What did you think about it?
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This post is part of Jo’s Monday walks.
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