Before I arrived in Buenos Aires I had imagined La Boca to be a traditional part of the city which was colourful, friendly and quaint. Now, If you ask the local Portenos about their view of the the barrio La boca and the colorful Caminito street they will tell you that it has a reputation of being a touristic, commercial area where you are just as likely to get pick pocketed as you are to spot some tango dancers. However, if you go on a tour of La Boca you will find that the small road of Caminito and the surrounding area have an interesting history and the chance to something that is an important part of the formation of Buenos Aires.
There are some fantastic reasons to visit La Boca. The first is that Caminito is thought to be, in some circles, the birthplace of Tango music. The first thing you will notice when visiting La Boca is the presence of tango. Couples perform tango in the streets, tango music plays in the bars and restaurants and you can buy more kinds of tango souvenirs than anywhere else in the world. Tango is a mix of musical styles and is full of feelings of nostalgia, loss and is full of lunfardo, the porteno slang which I hear on a day to day basis. The living accommodations of the conventillos, where immigrants from all around the world lived together, was a perfect melting pot for the creation of this new musical style- tango.
Even the name of the street itself has roots in Tango. Camino literally means ‘way’ in English, and the -ito ending means little or small. This is certainly true and If you are going to Caminito expecting a large Barrio that you can explore; think again. Caminito is only 100 meters long and if you stray too far from the touristic path you may just find yourself in danger. However, apart from it’s literal translation the naming of the street has another mythology behind it. The name Caminito was in fact the name of a very famous tango song from 1926 by a famous La Boca musician and resident, Juan de Dios Filiberto. In fact, the lyrics of this song are also famously written on a plaque up on the first wall you see as you approach Caminito.
Caminito is also a fantastic place to see Fileteado which a type of artistic drawing, with stylised lines and flowered, climbing plants. You will find that in Buenos Aires it is used to decorate almost everything: signs, taxis, lorries and even the old style of buses here. Filetes are usually full of coloured designs completed with poetic phrases. This style of art has come to be synonymous with the city and finally was recognised as an art after 1970, when it was exhibited for the first time. Howerver, why pay to go and see this pretty form of art when you can head to Caminitio and check it out for free?
However, perhaps most fascinating of all is Caminito’s existence as one of the world’s only outdoor museums. Why? Well to explain the situation fully we must look a little bit at the history of the area. Between 1880 and 1930 around six million immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires. There was not enough housing in the city and so many of the immigrants decided to construct their own housing and new barrios were erected all around the city. Many of these immigrants were Italian and chose the location of La Boca to settle because of it’s proximity to the port. The houses in La Boca were made from materials that were scavenged from the shipyards and because the inhabitants of this area were from Genoa, they brought a tradition of painting their houses with colourful paints. Due to the huge problem with housing these houses mostly took the form of conventillos which are shared or tenement housing. The conventillos were long houses with small rooms often shared by numerous families. The areas were rife with poverty.
By the late 1950s, La Boca had changed dramatically– most of conventillo housing had been demolished. The residents of the area felt that an important piece of history was being lost and so Benito Quinquela Martin, an abandoned orphan who was adopted by a Genoese immigrant couple in La Boca, decided that he would try and rescue some of the heritage of the area. In 1959, Quinquela Martin and his friends created the street of Caminito, as a means of recreating the way old La Boca used to look. Quinquela Martin rescued pieces of the original immigrant conventillos that were being demolished, and used them to create a small conventillo community around this street, in what is essentially an uninhabited open-air art and history exhibit.
So, of course there are many compelling reasons to visit La Boca and I would thoroughly recommend that people do Sadly, beyond the glass of the tourism and the street of Caminito the reason that La Boca is so dangerous is because these conventillos and poor living conditions still exist in the capital. On arriving in La Boca my previous ideas and preconceptions of La Boca were swept away. In fact, for me, the experience in La Boca was one more akin to the famous tours of the favelas in Brazil than the quaint village feel I was expecting.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that Caminito is a subtle form of Slum Tourism. Now, slum tourism is the idea of visiting a location in order to see how “the other half” live in impoverished conditions and taking your camera with you and of course La Boca isn’t slum tourism in the purest form, as in Rio. It can’t be because the actual street of Caminito is devoid of people living there. It is a mock museum made just for tourists. However, it is very likely that the people who work and make a profit in Caminito live next door in the Barrio of La Boca which still remains to this day full of conventillos and poverty. That people do not understand the history of La Boca before they go there or that often tourists are unaware of the people living in modern day slum conditions just a few streets away makes me feel a little more than uncomfortable. In his article Slum tourism Jay, from the blog Jay travels, writes a compelling argument about the moral rights and wrongs about visiting impoverished areas as a tourist and why this is such a controversial topic, read more about this here. I can’t say that I think that this kind of tourism is right or wrong, however, I did feel a slight guilt while I was walking through Caminito as I thought about the extreme levels of poverty I have seen since I came to South America and Buenos Aires.
Now, let me make it clear that aside from a brief visit to Caminto or perhaps a chance viewing on a journey to the station retire most visitors to Buenos Aires will never set a foot near any of the slums of Buenos Aires. They are not part of the routine
tourist trail here in the city. Here, slums are called Villas and there is a surprising number of them for a city which is supposedly the Paris of South America. Even more surprising is that very few people, aside from the resident Portenos seem to know that they exist. According to Mercopress, over half a million families live in 864 slums and irregular settlements in metropolitan Buenos Aires. 66% of these slums have existed for over fifteen years and in 65% of them continue to expand into the surrounding areas. Over 88% of these villas have no sewage and survive with only basic septic facilities. This means that in the majority of cases there is no pluvial drainage which means repeated swamping and the presence of stagnant waters which help the development of diseases and parasites, including worms, mosquitos and a plague of rats. Public utilities are also very scarce, 83.4% of the villas have no access to the gas network and appeal to carafes (much more expensive than the subsidised network gas). Almost none of these villas have access to running water and power, although in this last case there is a lot of stealing from the urban grid. Please take some time to watch a really interesting short video about the villas in Buenos Aires here.
The composition of people in the slums seems to consist, from my limited knowledge, of a mixture of working class Argentinians and migrant workers: people from Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay and due to the extortionate cost of housing in Buenos Aires it is very easy to see how this situation is only going to become worse. One thing that I did not realise before coming to Argentina was that obtaining houses for foreigners is much more difficult than obtaining housing as a Porteno. In fact, doing almost anything in Argentina is more difficult as a foreigner, but more on that in a later blog post. In order to rent property you are required to have a guarantee, someone – or rather an Argentinian, who owns property and who is willing to sponsor your application to rent. In addition, you need to have a large deposit which is outwith the means of many of the people who move here from poorer nations. After this, your options are to rent temporary accommodation, which is ridiculously expensive even by European standards, or to find another solution. This obviously drives more and more people, who come to Buenos Aires to build a better life for themselves, into the villas.
Unfortunately, while Caminito is a fantastic place to visit and learn about the history of Buenos Aires, the conditions that once existed when the first immigrants came to Buenos Aires still exist today for the new immigrants coming to this country in the hope of a better life. More shamefully, Caminito is more famous than the huge problems that face people living in the villas in Buenos Aires. Hopefully, this article will go a little way to addressing this balance.
- La Boca (snowlady.typepad.com)
- World’s Most Colorful Towns (foxnews.com)
- Buenos Aires… en bueno onda (warriorsandgoddesses.wordpress.com)
- How To Feel Like A Local In Buenos Aires (businessinsider.com)
- 5 Things that Too Many People Miss Out On when Travelling Through Buenos Aires (channelvoyager.com)