Caminito

December 13, 2006 by · 28 Comments 

Touristic Hotspot in La Boca

Great picture of a taxi near Caminito

NOTE – if you would like to book a private guided walking tour in Buenos Aires that includes a visit to Caminito and the surrounding area of La Boca, please click on the following link for information on our San Telmo & La Boca Tour.

Quite possibly the biggest mainstream tourist hotspot in Buenos Aires, the colorful Caminito street in the otherwise run down barrio of La Boca has an unfortunate reputation of being commercial, touristy, tacky, tango-ey rubbish by locals and travel guides alike.

However, although it is trendy to say such things, this small road and the immediate area around it do in fact have both an interesting history and the opportunity for taking some great photos, even if you have to push past several American and Japanese tourists to get the experience.

But give Caminito a chance! You might just like it…

What does Caminito mean anyway?

The most famous corner in Caminito

Camino literally means ‘way’ or ‘walkway’ in English, and the -ito or -ita ending tagged onto Spanish nouns means little or small. And so Caminito is often translated as either ‘little walkway’, ‘little road’, ‘little path’, or ‘little street’.

All of these are correct. It is little. At less than 100 meters long, it was never going to win any awards for size, but then Buenos Aires claims to already has those in the bag – Avenida 9 de Julio for world’s widest street and Avenida Rivadavia for world’s longest. However, Caminito certainly makes up for its shortness with its amazing colors, and probably has won some kind of award before for greatest concentration of Japanese tourists per square meter.

But there is more to this small street and tourist attraction than first meets the eye.

Caminito street and the ‘colorful’ history of La Boca

Around 6 million foreign immigrants poured into Argentina between the years 1880 and 1930, in which time Buenos Aires quickly turned from small town to heaving city. About 50% of these people were Italian, and many of those were from the port town of Genoa, Italy. Genoa was a port, La Boca was a port… things seemed familiar, and so the Italian immigrants did not move far from the immediate area where they first stepped onto Argentine soil, the port of La Boca (which means ‘the mouth’, as in the mouth of the Riachuelo river).

Shopping galeria that used to be tenement housing, La Boca

What has all this got to do with colorful Caminito, you ask? Well, the majority of these Italian immigrants in La Boca worked in the port, just as they had done in Genoa. The Genoese proudly brought their unique identity to La Boca, and one of their old traditions was to paint the outside of their homes with the leftover paint from the shipyard – as nothing else was available or could be afforded.

Conventillo Housing

However, they took things one step further in La Boca, and actually built the houses almost completely from materials found or discarded in the shipyard. This was because of the huge population explosion due to the immigration at the turn of the 20th century – there just was not enough homes for all of the people in Buenos Aires.

The answer to this problem was conventillo (tenement / shared) housing. Conventillos were long houses with small rooms that opened out onto a central outdoor common patio. Whereas in somewhere like San Telmo, for example, conventillos were generally old converted mansions large houses, in La Boca they had to be more inventive. Here the conventillos were hastily constructed from scrap corrugated metal and wood from old ships, and to spruce them up a little, the façades, doors and windows were then decorated in the famous bright color combinations with the leftover paint from the port, that tradition brought from Genoa.

Colorful shopping in Caminito, La Boca

Caminito is not strictly ‘authentic’, but ‘representative’

The main accusation that Caminito’s detractors throw about is that it is not authentic – in its current form, the street does not date back to the turn of the 20th century when the real conventillos were first built and lived in.

Instead, the history of Caminito is basically as follows:

  • Early 1800s onwards: a small stream flowing into the Riachuelo river ran along the same route where Caminito street is now found
  • Later that century, this area of the stream became known as Puntin, the Genoese diminutive term for bridge, because a small bridge allowed people to cross the stream here
  • When the stream dried up, the General Roca railway to the provinces that ran past here (you can see the disused tracks at the end of Caminito, along Garibaldi street) a deviation from the track followed the dried-up riverbed, and was where train repairs were carried out
  • In 1954 the train line went out of action, and the area where Caminito now is became a landfill and a bit of an eyesore
  • But soon after, probably the most famous Argentine artist of all time came to the rescue…

Benito Quinquela Martin, The Architect of Caminito

By the late 1950s, La Boca had drastically changed from the turn of the 20th century – most of the colorful, ragtag conventillo housing that had been spread throughout most of the barrio had been pulled down, being replaced by dull houses and blocks of flats. But this was the very essence of La Boca being destroyed, its history, and not everybody was going to sit back and watch that happen.

Benito Quinquela Martin, an abandoned orphan who was adopted by a Genoese immigrant couple in La Boca, was the man to take action. He had become the most significant painter in Argentina, with his dramatic paintings of the port of La Boca, and achieved worldwide recognition. But as La Boca was his inspiration, and had provided him with family, friends and shelter after having been orphaned at an early age, he felt he owed the barrio something in return.

Conventillo Housing in Caminito, La Boca

And so in 1959, Quinquela Martin and his artist friends created the street of Caminito, as a means of recreating the way old La Boca used to look – a reminder of where everyone had come from, not just in La Boca, but Buenos Aires, and Argentina, because this barrio and its port had been the gateway for many immigrants into this city and country (up until Puerto Madero & then Puerto Nuevo were built as replacements in the early 1900s), who then went on to make Buenos Aires and Argentina what they are today.

Palm Tree near Caminito, La Boca

The World’s First Outdoor Pedestrian Museum

What Quinquela Martin did was to rescue bits and pieces of the original immigrant conventillos that were being torn down and replaced, and used them to create a concentrated conventillo community around this small street, in what is essentially an uninhabited open-air art and history exhibit, and officially the world’s first outdoor pedestrian museum.

And so Caminito is really a boiled-down representation of the old immigrant La Boca, and therefore, recreated by a master artist raised just around the corner, and so Caminito is actually a lot more authentic than most people will tell you.
It is still an exhibit, and so nobody actually lives in the Conventillos along Caminito. You will see washing lines strung between walls in the stereotypical Italian way, but they are just for show, and all part of Quinquela Martin’s intended work of art, which should be respected for acting as a reminder of this barrio and city’s immigrant roots.

Tango on Caminito street

Tango dancers in Caminito, La BocaYou will probably notice a lot of Tango around when you visit Caminito, in the form of street performers, tango dancers and musicians, tango music drifting through the air from bars and restaurants, and tango souvenirs sold by the dozen in most of the shops, some of them situated inside the actual conventillos. Of course this may all seem a little tacky. And of course, it is! However, there is a reason why the Tango is associated with Caminito and La Boca.

Tango music was born in Buenos Aires in around 1870. However, it is still open to debate exactly where in Buenos Aires the tango originated from. Many say the arrabal (the suburbs / frontier between the city and the fields of the pampa) has the strongest claim. However, La Boca’s claim is up there with it, and also back in those days the arrabal would have started just south of La Boca, and so there was probably some crossover.

It is agreed that tango music first came out of the environment of immigrant-packed conventillo houses, where many different cultures and their respective types of music mixed in such close proximity, and from the melting pot of styles from around the world, tango music arose. It was on the outdoor patios in the center of the conventillos, where immigrants socialised together and played their musical instruments to each other after a hard day’s work, that this most probably occurred.

And so, as Caminito is representative of the old immigrant La Boca, it is also a representation of the genesis of Tango music that occurred at the same time here in history. And in keeping with the Italian tradition of the neighborhood, tango is full of passion, style, arrogance, showmanship, and feelings of nostalgia and longing (possibly for the Italian homeland). And of course, the lyrics are usually infused with lunfardo, the porteno slang dialect of Spanish corrupted with the Italian language and accent.

Caminito, more than just a ‘small walkway’

There is a little more to the naming of Caminito than it being a literal description of the small street. It also has a tango influence behind it.

The name Caminito was in fact first famous for a very popular 1926 Tango, by a famous La Boca musician and resident, Juan de Dios Filiberto. As the conventillos of La Boca were perhaps the true home of Tango, and the Caminito street was to be a representation of this, artist Benito Quinquela Martin felt it highly appropriate to name the street after a tango, and even better, one by a famous local resident. The name of the tango just so happened to also literally describe this very small street perfectly.

Filete sign of Caminito

Another reason for the naming was that musician Filiberto had just fallen seriously ill at the time, and his good friend Quinquela Martin thought this homage to him would be the best way to try and cheer him up. These days, there is also a street in La Boca very close to Caminito that is named directly after Juan de Dios Filiberto, and of course, the lyrics to his tango song are also famously written on a plaque up on the first wall you see as you approach Caminito (although Filiberto only wrote the music, it was the Mendozan poet Gabino Coria Penaloza who added the words).

Weekend Feria in La Boca

In and Around Caminito

If you come to Caminito at the weekend, you will also be able to do a little souvenir shopping the Feria de la Ribera arts and crafts market, which starts at the front of Caminito and goes around in front of the Riachuelo river. Here you will find handmade crochet scarves and shawls (see picture), traditional mate gourds and bombillas (the metal straws used for drinking mate), jewellery and lots of other interesting craft pieces, all at reasonable prices, especially if you are coming to Buenos Aires from the United States or Europe.

And if you work up a hunger after traipsing around Caminito and the feria, stop in at an authentic Italian Pizzeria nearby in La Boca – Banchero Pizzeria. The restaurant also happens to have been a favorite of Benito Quinquela Martin, the architect of Caminito, so it is a fitting end to the outing – and delicious too.

For more information about La Boca, including a little something about the famous Boca Juniors stadium and football team, the Argentina Travel blog adds some nice details about the neighborhood of La Boca.

Interested in seeing some great tango? Then please click the following link to book a Tango Show in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Location of Caminito street

Don Pedro de Mendoza, corner of Del Valle Iberlucea, La Boca

The Buenos Aires Japanese Gardens

December 12, 2006 by · 9 Comments 

Escape to the Jardin Japones

Japanese Gardens, Palermo, Buenos Aires

Tucked away in the Bosques de Palermo (Palermo Parks), you will find the peaceful Japanese Gardens, an oasis of calm and serenity in the middle of the crazy, busy, noisy city of Buenos Aires. The gardens are also recommendable as a nice place for couples to go when in Buenos Aires, or to take a date on if you are lucky enough to charm an Argentine while in town.

To be fair, you can just about hear the drone of cars on the main avenues in the background, which spoils your zen a little, but not completely. Also watch out for the occasional school trip of noisy children, or young family, partly because the abundant koi carp and ducks are happy to be fed by visitors, which kids usually seem to enjoy.

Koi Carp in the Japanese Gardens, Palermo

Beautifully Maintained Gardens

Me and a zen stone in the Jardin JaponesThe park itself is wonderfully kept and very pretty all year round, as the different plants, trees and bushes show their lovely colors at varying points in the calendar. Apart from the koi carp and ducks in the cutely landscaped ponds, there are other easy on the eye features such as sculpted shrubberies, ornate arched red bridges, pattering mini rock waterfalls and zen-like stone and sculpture formations (see right).

Apparently the horticulture on show includes black pine trees, gingko, sakura, and of course, the ubiquitous bonsai trees, that will impress all budding gardeners and karate kids alike.

In case you are wondering ‘why exactly are there Japanese gardens in Buenos Aires?‘, well, they were given as a ‘thank you’ to Argentina, by Japanese immigrants living in Buenos Aires, when they constructed this lovely five acre park in 1967.

Japanese Tea Room & Restaurant

Attached to the gardens, in a pagoda style building, a Japanese tea room and restaurant combo is found (closed on Tuesdays). During the day this offers a range of oriental brews, green teas and cakes, and then during the evening it transforms into a restaurant with authentic Japanese food, specializing in sushi. (If sushi is what you crave, look on Saltshaker for reviews of the best sushi spots all over BA).

Additionally, there are sometimes exhibitions and shows of Japanese culture held inside the same building – try calling ahead to find out if anything like this is happening, on 4804 9141.

Getting There & Getting In

The Jardin Japones is open from 10am to 6pm daily, year round, and costs a small fee to get in. To get there you can take a number of buses, including the 10, 37, 67, 102 or 130.

Failing that, try a taxi, or take a pleasant walk to get there – either through the rest of the Palermo Parks that run along Avenida Sarmiento, before turning onto Avenida Berro, or if you are starting from the Palermo Chico area (where the Malba art museum is located), you could walk along Avenida Figueroa Alcorta, turning onto Avenida Casares to reach the Japanese Gardens. Well worth a sightseeing visit, however you arrive there.

Location of Japanese Gardens / Jardin Japones

Corner of Av. Casares & Av. Berro, Palermo

Abasto Shopping Mall

December 11, 2006 by · 6 Comments 

Grand Shopping Center in Buenos Aires

Abasto corner

The Abasto shopping center is probably the one mall in Buenos Aires that has at least something to appeal to all people, of all ages. It’s wonderful 1930s Art Deco architecture and grand size add to the experience.

As far as shopping goes, it is full of mainstream clothes stores, and it boasts over 250 brands to choose from, including major labels like Nike, Lacoste and YSL. A bit logo-happy, but the building itself quite beautiful and unique (see right). And if size matters, it is one of the largest malls in the city of Buenos Aires (along with its newer, more modern counterpart, Dot Shopping in Saavedra, and Unicenter, the biggest mall in Argentina, which is technically outside the city limits).

This area of Abasto also has played a major role in the social and tango history of Buenos Aires, and for those reasons alone it is worth a quick visit, even if you are not interested in the shops inside. And there is also a range of things to see and do inside the center, which can be found near the end of this blog post.

History of the Mercado de Abasto

Mercado de Abasto

In 1893, a market fair started in this zone, which back then would have been referred to with its official barrio name of Balvanera. This official barrio is still found on the maps, but these days it is generally split into three unofficial, but more commonly used, areas, of Abasto, Once and Congreso – all named after major landmarks in each area (the Abasto mall, Once train station, and Congress building, respectively).

By 1930 Buenos Aires needed a wholesale distribution center for its food produce, and this old marketplace couldn’t cope with the needs of a rapidly growing population, so plans were projected by the architects Delpini, Sulsio and Besque for this grand structure to be erected as a new indoor home for the wholesale food market. Building began in 1931, and el Mercado de Abasto eventually opened in 1934. It soon became the center of the noisy, busy food trade in Buenos Aires. Crowds of workers would also drink, listen to tango music and play cards in the seedy bars around the market.

Art Deco Abasto

On the structural side, it was significant as the first building in Argentina to ever use cement for both its façade and indoor finish. The original façade is still the same as ever, with its lovely five curves at the front, the central one being wider and taller than the others, as can be seen in the picture above.

The Modern Abasto ‘Shopping’

Inside Abasto shoppingThe Abasto market set the lively pace of this neighborhood until it was closed down in 1984. This was due to its position in the middle of the city, which was seen as impractical, given that all of the produce came from the countryside and it meant unnecessarily travelling through most of the busy city to bring it here. And so a new central market was instead built on the city outskirts, which is the present Mercado Central, with the Abasto building sadly left abandoned to contemplate its former glory.

However, fifteen years later, in 1999, Abasto was reborn into a shopping center (or just ‘Shopping’, as they say in Buenos Aires), as it was refurbished completely on the inside, and with additional structures at the back and side, but keeping the original beautiful Art Deco façade.

Carlos Gardel’s Old Stamping Ground

The area around Abasto also just happens to be where the most famous tango singer of all time, Carlos Gardel, lived (with his mother) for most of his life. He was so closely connected to this area, that one of his nicknames was El Morocho del Abasto, which basically means ‘the dark-haired guy from Abasto’.

Carlos Gardel in his 'hood' of Abasto

In honor of this, a nice bronze statue of the immortal tango crooner stands just outside of the Abasto building, as shown in the picture over to the right.

Also within just a few blocks distance are his former house where he lived with his mother, on Jean Jaures 735, which is now a museum about his life, a small street named after him, called Pasaje Carlos Gardel, a subway station bearing his name, a corner tango house built in an 1893 bar that ressurects his songs in razzle-dazzle Argentine tango shows each night, and even a small street called Pasaje Zelaya where Gardel’s multi-colored mug is painted on most of the walls.

Finally, just across from the side of the mall is El Progreso Bar, on Anchorena 529, which happens to be one of the few places in Buenos Aires where Carlos Gardel actually sang (among other famous tango figures such as Tita Merello), which has also been preserved in the state it would have been in when Gardel performed there.

How to get to Abasto

Getting to the Abasto mall is fairly easy, thanks to an adjoining Subte (subway) station, called estacion ‘Carlos Gardel’, on the red B Line.

Also, if you are staying in a hotel, you can ask them to call 4338 2333 to arrange you free transport to and from the shopping center, which will certainly help if you are planning on going on a big shopping spree.

Things to do for families in Buenos Aires

Big wheel in the Abasto shopping center

The Abasto shopping center also includes several activities that may help to keep families with kids entertained when on holiday in Buenos Aires, for example:

  • A 12 screen cinema, which goes by the name of ‘Hoyts’ and shows all the major American, European and Argentine release.
  • A massive food court on the top floor where you can guiltily pig out on junk fast food, if that is, like me, one of your secret pleasures. This includes a Kosher McDonald’s restaurant, as Abasto is part of the Jewish area of Buenos Aires.
  • The Museo de Los Ninos, with its massive indoor big wheel (see right) and where kids can play at being adults in a ‘city’ scaled down to child size, where they can, for example, operate cranes on a building site, run a TV studio or man the helm of a ship. Open from 1-8pm on every day, except Mondays.
  • A fairly large games/amusements arcade replete with the usual flashing lights and games machines that gobble up pocket money at a fast rate.

Buenos Aires Cinema

If you are looking for a place to go to the movies in Buenos Aires, the Hoyts cinema complex in Abasto is an excellent choice for a laid back night at the cinema. It also serves up some tasty sweet popcorn, called pochoclo in Spanish, and if you want sweet, ask for dulce, or say salado for salted.

Also, if you go to the Hoyts cinema in the Abasto mall at night, you will get to see the outside of this wonderful building at its best, when its curves are lit up after dark, to stunning effect:

Abasto mall beautifully lit up by night

And finally, if you are on a budget, the cinema offers discounts on Wednesday nights, which is the day before the big releases come out. Almost all films in Buenos Aires are shown in the original English version, with Spanish subtitles, so there will be no potential language problems.

Location of Abasto Shopping Center

Corrientes 3247 (between Aguero & Anchorena), Abasto

Open 10am to 10pm daily,  Website: http://www.abasto-shopping.com.ar/

California Burrito Co – CBC

December 4, 2006 by · 12 Comments 

***UPDATE: The California Burrito Co has since closed down in Buenos Aires. It does however still have an outlet in Argentina in the city of Rosario, and several others in the countries of Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. We’ll leave this post here for posterity, in case they ever decide to come back to their roots in BA. You can read more about the company on their website.*** 

Burritos in Buenos Aires?

California Burrito Co - CBC, Buenos Aires

Yes, that’s right, Buenos Aires – the city that spicy food forgot – actually boasts a burrito restaurant whose efforts do not fall flat. The California Burrito Co, CBC for short, is spicing up the lives of residents and visitors alike. Word of mouth amongst Yanqui expats and resident food bloggers like Saltshaker (read here – Wrap it Up! In a tortilla please) have put CBC on the map as the real deal in your search for an authentic burrito in BA.

As a quick aside, for those of you who don’t know Saltshaker, he writes a food-themed blog with excellent, regular reviews of restaurants in Buenos Aires, in addition to recipes (he is also a chef by trade – with his own ‘closed doors’ restaurant called Casa Saltshaker) and his thoughts on life in BA. He really knows his stuff when it comes to food, so a Saltshaker thumbs-up for a restaurant means you are in for an excellent meal.

So if you are tiring of the usual Argentine menu suspects, head down to the city center and try your luck with Cal-Mex fast food.

California Burrito Co Counter

Yes, that’s right, Burritos in Buenos Aires

The restaurant is very clean, sleek and modern looking, and based on the pedestrian street of Lavalle in the bajo (low, sloping down to the river) area of Buenos Aires City Center. The set-up is as follows: you head up to the counter and order your combo:  select either a California burrito, a fajita burrito (has peppers & onions instead of beans), a veggie burrito, or 2 tacos (each combo includes a beverage). Then you proceed to select your meat (grilled steak, grilled chicken, beef strips or braised pork) if not going veggie; decide on your extras from a list of rice, beans, cheese, salads, sour cream and guacamole; and finally your sauce, including the spicy rojo, and the even spicier fuego, in addition to some tamer offerings.

It’s all put together in front of your hungry eyes, wrapped up in foil and chucked into a basket. Pay the man at the register and you’re off to your table to wolf it down with you bare hands, making a lot of lovely juicy mess in the process.

Yes indeed, a true BA Burrito.

Pictured is the California Burrito, with chicken, rice, all the extras that would fit, and the spicy rojo sauce. These burritos are huge, very tasty, and satisfying. The sauce is fairly spicy, and they even offer one more step up on their salsa spectrum – fuego (fire). Cool your tounge with a mineral water, fountain soft-drink or pay a little extra to indulge in a Negra Modelo or Corona beer with a slice of lime. CBC also occasionally holds Happy Hour promotions where the Margaritas are two-for-one. Not bad.

A Burrito, in Buenos Aires!

Just like Burritos in the US, only in Buenos Aires

CBC Buenos Aires StaffAmerican expats will tell you that California Burrito Co is a little bit like Chipotle in the US, which apparently is a good thing, and the two, they say, are on a par in the quality stakes.

The staff (see right) in CBC are also very friendly, a mix of the American owners and Argentine staff, and they do an excellent job of packaging up your burrito in front of you, advising you on what extras they have, and I am sure, for visitors to Buenos Aires, that there would always be an English speaker on hand to help out if you are feeling a little lost trying to order.

They are famous too! The Associated Press covered the three American CBC owners in a feature earlier this year, entitled ‘Foreign Entrepreneurs Spice Up Argentina’, which is worth a quick read, and also profiles some other expats making their way into the Argentine world of business.

Oh, and CBC also do salads for those who want to shed the flour tortilla. But don’t let health concerns get in the way of your Burrito.

Argentina Stereotypes

December 1, 2006 by · 17 Comments 

Argentina Stereotypes – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

mates stereotypes

Argentina, as a nation, is not overly concerned with being politically correct. If you have been here long enough, you start to realize that generalizing and categorizing are part of daily life in Buenos Aires. Although some may disagree, on occasion stereotypes are important generalizations, and it is only by generalizing the specifics of the world that human beings can continue to have constructive conversations.

Of course, stereotypes aren’t always true (sometimes quite the opposite) or helpful. But it is a fact that they are there. Sometimes they can even be funny, especially if accepted by the nation itself.

So here is a top 10 of supposed Argentine Stereotypes (more specifically regarding Buenos Aires), some accepted, some not:

The ‘Good’

  • The excellent beef and malbec wine
  • Everyone here loves Mate, and the whole ceremony around it
  • The people are very warm and friendly
  • The women are beautiful
  • A cultured society – interested in theater, literature, art etc

The ‘Bad’

  • Cheating at football (and then boasting about it)
  • Lazy – things taking a long time to get done
  • Vain and a little arrogant
  • Love a good disruptive protest

The ‘Ugly’

  • Mullets and 1980s music / fashion

Your Suggestions for Argentine Stereotypes?

No one is saying that any of the above are right or wrong. Just that they are widely circulated stereotypes. What are your views on these Argentine stereotypes? Please leave your comments below.

Can you think of any more common stereotypes about Argentina or Buenos Aires, good or bad? Again, please leave your suggestions as comments.

[Top picture caption: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pipistrula/53609363/sizes/m/in/photostream/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ]

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