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La Boca, Argentina. Colorful, gritty, tough.

La Baco 2014 007

Having just returned from a 3 week vacation to South America, I saw and photographed many fascinating places which I hope to share with you in the coming weeks.  I thought I’d start with the very last but most colorful place we visited.  La Boca (or Boca) is among the oldest “working class” neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.  Settled in the 19th century, mostly by poor Italian immigrants from Genoa, it was built adjoining the city’s old harbor on Rio Riachuelo.  As with much of Buenos Aires, it retains a distinct European flavor, but Boca has resisted gentrification — it seems to enjoy being the tough neighbor.

The immigrants homes in Boca, cobbled together some 150 years ago of wood and sheet metal and painted with whatever color was left over from the docks that day, are surprising well preserved, though far from pristine.  But it’s the vibrant colors of the place that grabs your attention and will stay with you.  The focal point of Boca’s colorful homes is a small neighborhood known as Caminito which is one of the most distinctive landmarks of Buenos Aires.

Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires

Caminito region is a popular stop with tourists (it’s definitely a “tourist trap”) and you’ll find many large buses disgorging tourists to explore the small area around Caminito, these folks only visiting for a short while.  After walking around and enjoying the colorful homes, you can shop at some of the many souvenir shops, most selling the expected tacky stuff but some having great art highlighting Boca’s color, architecture and history of tango.  There’s some good restaurants and cafes catering to tourists, some of which offer good quality (free) tango shows to their patrons.  So if there, linger a little and try to get a sense of what the place was like before the tourist hoards descended.

Legend has it that tango was invented in La Boca, but other neighborhoods and even Uruguay make the same claim so who knows where Tango came from?  Tango certainly did and still does play an important role in Boca’s heritage and self-image.   You’ll find men and women dressed in Tango clothes who’ll be glad to pose with you — for a small fee.

La Perla Restaurant, La Boca

Boca is very well known by soccer (futbol) fans many of whom visit its stadium, La Bombonera, where the much loved Boca Juniors football team plays.   This football team is one of the most successful and popular soccer clubs in the world and is a rallying point for this community.  You’ll find team colors and memorabilia everywhere in Boca.

An important word of caution!  Caminito is well policed and considered safe, but much of La Boca is not.  We took a cab there, and another from it because we had been repeatedly warned not to walk the neighborhood by portenos (residents of Buenos Aires).  The streets and neighborhood beyond Caminito should be entered with extreme caution and are best avoided, especially at night, because they are dangerous to tourists, with frequent armed muggings.  I was surprised to read large numbers of reports of thefts in La Boca by travelers on Tripadvisor (motorcycles pull up, the passenger in the rear jumps off, pulls out a gun, grabs your camera or purse and is off in a flash on the bike).  If you do go for a stroll away from Caminito, take no valuables with you, go in a group and be very careful.

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