San Telmo Art & History Walk: A Tour Through the Neighborhood’s Myth and Legend
Let me start of by admitting something about myself. I love tours. Walking, graffiti, or a historical walking tour, they are each a sensual treat on my proverbial cake. So when given the chance to attend the San Telmo Art and History Walk I was eager to see what it was about, and curious to discover what new knowledge I could learn, or confirm the tales I already knew. It turns out, I know diddly.
My tour guide Leo walked our group through a diverse history of San Telmo, sharing with us a rich history of local myths, legends, and historical events, all the while pointing out the spectacular graffiti that dots the neighborhood along the way. I felt like a wide-eyed tourists walking through San Telmo, and left with a deeper understanding of one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods.
We began our tour in Plaza Dorrego, which most people associate as the endpoint to the famous San Telmo Market held each weekend, or a place to watch tango dancers or listen to local folklore music, who dance and sing for visiting tourists. We stood on a corner that currently houses a Starbucks which gave us a view of a more special cafe, Bar Plaza Dorrego. The walls and tables are tagged by decades of visitors and was once where famous authors like Jorge Luis Borges went to write.
Over in Galeria Francia, a typical old casona turned strip of silver shops just steps from the Plaza, I learned that Argentina was named after Argentum which means silver in Latin. The Spanish colonists assumed they would find silver in Argentina, unluckily for them that was not true, but they did get lucky with silver in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and the Rio Plata (Silver River), true to its name became the via for large shipments of silver from those countries.
As we zig-zagged and circled around the neighborhood, Leo pointed out a number of key graffiti spots in the neighborhood. It wouldn’t be a walk through the streets of Buenos Aires without some quality graffiti spots, and Leo had an encyclopedic knowledge of the artists, and stories behind various pieces. Along the way we saw political murals, large pieces by well-known BA street arts, and learned about traditional Argentine filete. Here is a sneak peek:
We also learned the stories behind a number of the neighborhood’s buildings and monuments. There was a house that had been occupied for decades by squatters, who were kicked out under Macri’s city government to make way for a Spanish cultural center, that was taken back over by the same squatters who were forcibly relocated by the city government. The graffiti on the walls of the ex-cultural center had a political tone, with portraits of a few national political heroes. Next door was a monument to the mythical Argentine hero Gauchito Gil, a savior to many locals. The local legend means different things to different people, but whatever side you’re on he is a Robin Hood style hero meant to serve and protect with an interesting origin story — but I’ll let Leo fill you in on the details.
Between stops, Leo added little tidbits of history. As we made our way to the entrance of Boca, I was surprised to learn that tango was originally a dance between two men, often sailors. “You’re at sea for months on end with your buddies, and the women you meet are primarily prostitutes who don’t dance. So obviously, there was going to be some tension, and then maybe some dancing.”
By the end of the tour I’m left delighted and excited by all the newfound information I have acquired and really pleased with the afternoon. For a tour enthusiast like myself, a good tour should be a walk through the past and the present with a hint of what lays ahead, and the San Telmo Art and History tour did just that. If you are visiting Buenos Aires or even live here and want to learn more about San Telmo, you would be missing out on a spectacular trip down memory lane. John Steinbeck said it best “ People don’t just take trips, trips take people.”, San Telmo walking tour, I tip my hat to you.