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.