La Boca Walking Tour: An Afternoon in One of Buenos Aires’ Oldest Neighborhoods
When I arrived to Buenos Aires I was warned that there was one neighborhood to avoid from dusk til’ dawn: La Boca. Out of all the Buenos Aires neighborhoods that tourists visit, Boca has and still gets a bad rap. I for one have chosen to ignore the panic filled ¡Ay que peligroso! and was happily lead by a friend from the barrio through the Boca basics: a stop through the Boca stadium and museum with blue and yellow jerseyed fans at every turn, and a stroll past the colorful houses of Caminito. So why should this time around, on a tour no less, be any different?
The walking tour goes down punctually on Saturday at 2:50 pm; it is overcast and incredibly humid, nothing new here for a late summer in BA. I am brazenly tardy, which I partially blame on the weather, and partially on the idea that I had already seen everything there was to see in Boca. Nonetheless, I roll up on Rick Powell of Buenos Aires Art Tours and my fellow tour goers are waiting on me patiently at the McDonald’s – the first and only bit of inauthenticity I see that afternoon – and we get right to it.
An apartment building rumored to be haunted (left), and an architectural imitation of William Brown’s home (right)
I am immediately struck by how quiet the neighborhood is even with the feria in Parque Lezama in full swing. We take a quick look at the park, once part of a private residence, before entering Boca on the long Av. Alte Brown that cuts down the middle of the neighborhood. The entry sign is filled with caricatures in reliefs, which are repeated throughout the neighborhood. The good ole days in Boca looked like a party. Fat ladies, dwarves, prostitutes and circus people occupy the neighborhood’s traditional murals. This is attributed to Parque Lezama and Boca being the original home base for the circus in Buenos Aires. Besides the circus people, immigrants primarily from Genoa, another port city in Italy, as well as Ukraine, France, and Germany filled the Boca neighborhood.
The tour continues and we crisscross through a complex that feels less like a subsidized housing compound and more like a small oasis: purple flowers litter the ground, crisp cool air chill our sweat drenched faces, a police station, and a Spanish style church make this small neighborhood within a neighborhood a family’s dream.
Admiring a mural while the ‘vecinos’ do their thing
Something I immediately enjoy about the tour: everyone around us is doing their thing. No one seems to even notice the small group of foreigners snapping photos and peering up at buildings. That is until we get to Caminito later on, where street vendors and restaurant hosts are all hustling for a dime. Everyone seems familiar with one another, and I remember the times I explored the area on my own and took directions from the neighborhood’s friendly vecinos. The general atmosphere is a community where everyone is familiar.
We loop back around to Alte. Brown and Rick begins recounting stories of the neighborhood’s most interesting inhabitants. Like William Brown, namesake to the street we walk on and the original Buenos Aires badass. A seaman of English and Irish descent, he began his naval career at the age of 10 and was viewed as both a mercantile pirate and naval hero depending on who you talked to. A short stint in prison in Argentina came to a close when the government realized he was their only hope at leading the navy against the Portuguese empire. While our brains digest this anecdote, my mouth begins to salivate as Rick points out the first pizza place that consisted solely of a man just selling his Fuzzagetta and Faina from a basket, as well as several reputable restaurants that I made a mental note of. The Boca fun facts keep rolling when I learn that the Usina del Arte, was once the biggest power plant for the BA province, and is now home to an impressive art space and theater.
Just past the touristy area of Caminito is a small path covered in murals
We zigzagged back off the beaten track once again and got to catch a glimpse of some truly expressive mural art by artists like Ricardo Carpani and Malegría, active artists have indefinitely left their mark on the Boca neighborhood. Some of the artwork may or may not have been done under the influence of mind altering drugs, and the guessing game made viewing the art the more alluring. Additionally I was shaken by how much street art I hadn’t seen or would never have seen without someone showing me. This is when our tour guide Rick, begins to ask us about our story, before telling us about his journey to Buenos Aires. He drops on us some serious knowledge on street art, and his own renown in the street art scene.
Murals decorate the homes of La Boca; Malegria (left) on a squat house
By the end of this tour my head was left buzzing with the information I had learned (or an after tour beer, perhaps?). In my eyes La Boca is no longer just that unremarkable swampland that became the breeding ground to tango, immigrants, and the occasional tenement fire. No sir! It has blossomed into a place with strong traditions and an overall relaxing atmosphere, and a wonderful neighborhood for an afternoon of exploring.