La Boca: The Fakest Spot in Buenos Aires

Even if you’ve never heard of La Boca you would probably recognize it:

A street lined with a vibrant rainbow of eclectic ramshackle buildings shining in the sun. It’s probably one of the most famous images of Buenos Aires. This is interesting and strange, because the rest of the city looks absolutely nothing like this neighborhood. It’s a colorful splash while the rest of the city dwells in a cheerful but faded elegance.

It’s also one of the most popular tourist sites in Buenos Aires due to it’s obvious photogenic nature. Nonetheless, it took me over a month to finally get around to visiting- what can I say, I’m a procrastinator, and when I finally did, I was decidedly unimpressed.

Because here’s the thing: La Boca is a fake.

Sure there’s a shred of authenticity in the history of the place. Named after the mouth of the river where it sits, La Boca was (and really still is), one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital As a result they mostly built their houses with whatever unneeded shreds of materials they could find. They also painted their houses with whatever leftover paint colors they could get their hands on, leading to bright and bohemian buildings that line the streets.

These faded overtime, but in the 1950’s a local artist, Quinquela Martín, convinced the locals to revive old traditions by painting their houses brightly again. In 1959 El Caminito, a small area of about 3 blocks was declared an open air museum by the government. Sixty years later it’s, well it’s a big honking tourist trap.

Whatever charming historical neighborhood you were hoping to find, that’s not what busloads of tourists tromp through each afternoon. The main avenue is crowded with overpriced restaurants, cheap souvenir shops and street performers tangoing for cash. There are giant papier mache statues of famous figure, cardboard cutouts that you can stick your head through for 3 pesos and touts trying to entice you into their bars. I read somewhere that there are even fake prostitutes that tourists can take pictures of, although I didn’t spot them.

Keep in mind that all of this is happening in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Just a few blocks in any direction and you will be in very different territory indeed. Muggings or worse are unfortunately quite common. Even within the tourist area pickpockets work with abandon.

The irony of busloads of tourists pulling up to take a few snapshots of a “poor, colorful” neighborhood of Buenos Aires when they wouldn’t dare venture past the safety of main street was not lost on me. There’s something so surreal about this sunny tourist ghetto perched just blocks from one of Buenos Aires toughest neighborhoods.

I am not a snob about tourist traps in general, but this one irked me. I mean it’s not real! Not only is it not real, it’s an extreme, Disney-land representation of a Buenos Aires that never existed- and it’s going on nearly oblivious to the very real, not so shiny and happy Buenos Aires down the block. It’s not just fake, it’s false.

Does that mean you should skip La Boca? I wouldn’t say that. It IS pretty, and visiting is harmless, in fact I’m sure the locals make quite a bit of money of the tourist trade. Like anywhere you go on your travels though, it’s important to think about the context of what you’re seeing.

26 thoughts on “La Boca: The Fakest Spot in Buenos Aires”

    1. I didn’t feel like Luang Prabang was fake at all. It was touristy, of course, because businesses are there catering to the tourists. But that’s par for the course. If anything, it was Vang Vieng that felt fake.

  1. So funny, one of my best friends just came back from Buenos Aires and took these very same photos, without the commentary on it though. Now I feel like I know what I’m looking at! I felt the same way as you about the Calzada in Granada, Nicaragua. So picture and price perfect for tourists, but a block from there, be careful because you might just get mugged.

  2. I absolutely hate stuff like this. I’m not a tourism snob, either. I love good, cheesy attractions. But this just sounds artificial. A pastiche of what we think BA should be. How sad.

  3. Be careful to distinguish between La Boca, an entire barrio and El Caminito, which is a massive tourist trap and tiny block in La Boca.

    La Boca is not fake at all. In fact, La Boca is so “real,” you shouldn’t be walking around there 😉

  4. I don’t mind El Caminito, but if you are tight on time there’s no problem with skipping it. Spend time instead in San Telmo, Recoleta, and of course, Palermo. I’m heading to BsAs for the honeymoon and I can’t wait.

  5. Interesting. I would definitely go, because I think those colors are gorgeous and it looks like a bit of fun, but its good to have the background and keep it in context.

  6. I can see why you would be irked by this fake neighborhood. Travelers aren’t gonna get the real cultural experience by coming here since it’s made up.

    But I do have to ask: if this is declared a “museum” wouldn’t it be just that? Museums are made so that people can visit and learn about the culture. It’s definitely a Disneyland where people pay extra for food and other things to learn about the city. If this city was known as a museum by all tourists, then I’m not as annoyed that they built it because the tourists should know that it’s not a real city but a city made for tourists to look at. Although, I don’t know why they wouldn’t just trust that the real cities are good enough to be visited instead of making up one. LOL!

    This is definitely a traveler’s problem, and I would never visit this place since I like a more authentic experience. But unfortunately, there is a target market for it. =/

  7. Yeah, i was a little disappointed when i went there. Although i did get some awesome dulce de leche liquor there that i now wish i bought many more bottles of.

  8. Tomorrow is our last day in BA and I am tempted to skip it because it’s not subtre friendly and we don’t have enough coins for the bus. Now after reading this, i feel better about not trying to squeeze it in!

  9. Hello people! I´m Noelia, I´m Argentinian and I´m from Rosario.

    I UNDESTAND WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT PLACES PREPARED FOR TOURIST, with overpriced restaurants, stupid- senseless souvenirs, etc..

    BUT FAKE???

    I LOVE YOUR POSTS, but here, you are very wrong. You can have any opinion or impression about it, and it´s ok, BUT there´s history behind it. And I think you should get to know it before write things as FAKE and FALSE

    La BOCA was, before the arrival of inmigrants, a neighborhood for the upper classes of Argentina. The most wealthy people lived there. La Boca was back then, what today is Recoleta or Palermo.

    When inmigrants arrived mainly from Italy and Spanish they would get down the boat at the port, and walk around La boca.

    High class people were horryfied because this “poor” people had to pass trhough their neirborhoods so they moved to the North. As I said, this is the actual RECOLETA and PALERMO. The most expensive and exclusive places to live in BA.

    The now empty houses of la BOCA were destined to build “conventillos”. This was like a modern hostel that rented rooms to families (mostly inmigrants). After that, all the inmigrants that came to Argentina established their houses around conventillos. As they didn´t have any money, they built their houses with “chapas” (sheet) and they painted them with some leftover paint from the ships where they came from. As one colour wasn´t enough to finish an entire house, they used a mix of very bright colours and gave the LA BOCA it´s characteristic and modern look.

    MANY other things have made la boca famous over the years. IT MIGHT BE OVER-PREPARED FOR TOURIST BUT THERE PLENTY OF HISTORY BENEATH THEM AND IT HAS BEEN VERY IMPORTANT FOR CULTURAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT IN ARGENTINA.

    IT´S EXAGGERATED? YES. You know why? that´s how Buenos Aires is.

    Nowadays, LA BOCA is still a poor neirboorhood of BA. “el caminito” and the surroinding areas are prepare for tourist. TRUST ME you don´t want to see what it´s behind the “FAKE SCENE” you saw

    1. Hi Noe, Thanks for the comment! I know that La Boca is one of the poorest neighborhoods in BA, which is part of why I think it’s crazy that tourists come to El Caminito thinking they are seeing a “real” glimpse of Buenos Aires when they are really just seeing a tourist facade and ignoring the real, less pretty parts of the city. In other words, visitors to that area a getting a fake idea of what Buenos Aires is like. It’s pretty, and yes there is history (that most people don’t know about), but it’s presented as something it’s not. Does that make sense?

        1. Tourists feel like they are seeing the “real” Buenos Aires but they are really seeing a facade set up for tourists. It makes it easy to ignore the real issues and realities they real citizens face.

  10. I did feel a bit like this about Boca but I still think it is worth going to. You can get nice photos. On my way to Boca stadium I was told by a policeman to change street as it was too dangerous on the one I was on but yet only 2 streets away the street was just like above with tourists everywhere. So as you say poor but a bit of a tourist trap.

  11. I totally agree with this. While La Boca does have some interesting history, as does everything in Buenos Aires, I hate that everyone and everything makes it seem like this is what BA is. I just feel like the fact that they have pimped out everything interesting about the neighborhood has just ruined it.

  12. Yes El Caminto is a horrible tourist trap but the neighborhood outside of that is the real deal, as Noe above notes. One of my good friends lives there and I stayed in his apartment for a while (probably one of the few foreigners to have lived in La Boca) and I loved it!

    Its history is similar to the East End in London and the Lower East Side in New York — most of the country’s immigrants came through here and many contemporary immigrants from Africa, and other South American countries still end up here. The people are far friendlier than the ‘chetos’ in Palermo. La Boca has a heart and soul, you just won’t find it on Caminto!

  13. Just back from Sth America and most of the trip was fantastic, but La Boca was the worst tourist sight I’ve ever struck.

    I’ve only occasionally come across the same number of souvenir shops in one place, but at least those venues had some merit in the first place (I’m thinking of the Great Wall in China). A few pieces of painted tin cynically held up in places by a newly constructed concrete brick shop does not do it for me. And much of the beauty of the place (minimal to start with) is obscured by tacky posing cutouts for you to stick your head in, belligerent restaurant touts and tango prostitutes wanting money to pose.

    I couldn’t wait to get out of the place – a dump of the highest order … and we didn’t even get to feel threatened!

  14. obviously, you don´t have any idea the difference between La Boca and Caminito, which is in la Boca, but it´s just a street. La Boca is a very big area, where Buenos Aires started to be Buenos Aires and it´s exactly the opposite of fake. It´s fine if you don´t like the touristy side of Caminito, but do us a favor and be respectful and read some history. Maybe that will help you to see further the tango couples and everything that bothers you, and will stop you from telling other people things that are not true. Thank you

    1. Hi Marie,
      That is my point. Tourists stroll around Caminito without any conception of what the rest of the neighborhood is actually like. It’s a fake tourist experience.

      You are right though, I should have been more clear about the distinction.

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