Buenos Aires – The Barrio Of Kitsch

It is edgy. It is seedy. It is touristy.  And it probably deserves all the bad press it receives. But there is no denying the sense of drama and theatre in the psychedelic barrio of La Boca. A throwback to its maritime history and the meshing of cultures of early immigrant settlers.

The name is said to be derived from its location at ‘La Boca’ (the mouth) of the Riochuelo river, and the port where the Spanish first landed in 1530. Others claim the barrio was named after ‘Boccadasse‘ a neighbourhood in Genoa, by Genoese immigrants who landed three centuries (and independence) later, in the by then gritty meatpacking and tanning district. The Spaniards had long since moved inland, leaving only their African slaves behind. The area further declined when the shipping industry was transferred to the new port in Puerto Madero.

DSCN1902 copy

The most touristy part today, thankfully rendered less overwhelming by the fact that it was the day of the presidential election, is the one time railway route of El Caminito. Now a cobbled pedestrian street lined with brightly painted tin tenements called Conventillos, that could very well have been backdrops for stage productions!

The reality is less romantic. These Conventillos, originally built by the Genoese from scrap metal and waste paint from the shipyards are congested living quarters with cooking, washing and toilet facilities shared by several families. The ones in the Caminito have been turned into souvenir shops. But similar conditions apparently prevail, in the bylanes out of the tourist circuit where the marginalised population of the ‘Paris of South America’ live.

DSCN1914 copy

Hence the need for caution and the repeated warnings to leave your Rolexes and designer bling at home. And expensive cameras too. Just carry with you what will not hurt you too much to lose. And never venture there on foot at night. To be fair,  we never sensed any danger here or anywhere else in South America. Not even in Rio.

We appreciated the relative quiet of election day, but its downside was that we missed seeing the impromptu Tango dancers that this barrio is famous for. In fact Tango is supposed to have been born here. Evolved from the tangle of European cultures that make up Buenos Aires, and from the bawdy dances of immigrant labourers hoping to impress the then minuscule female population of their barrio.


Another casualty of the elections was our plan to experience the fanatical fervour of a ‘super classico’ clash between the local Boca Juniors and River Plate football teams at the Bombanera stadium. Sigh…….

The revival of El Caminito and La Boca  in the 1950’s is credited to renowned Argentinian artist Benito Quinquela Martín who spent his childhood here. He gathered neighbors to re-paint the houses in their taditional bright colors and urged the government to declare the street an open-air museum. (Caminito is derived from a Tango tune co-authored by his friend Juan de Dios Filibrito also a La Boca resident.) In 1936 he set up an art school in the Vuelta de Rocha, the square facing the river, which has been transformed into the Museo de Bellas Artes de La Boca Quinquela Martín to display his works donated to the city, along with those of contemporary Argentinian artists.


Quinquela Martín
died in 1977 and was buried in the Chacarita cemetary in a coffin inscribed with these words:

 “Que quien vivió rodeado de color
no puede ser enterrado en una caja lisa”

“He who lived surrounded by colors
cannot be buried in a flat box”

On the cover of the coffin was a painting of the port of La Boca.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

191 thoughts on “Buenos Aires – The Barrio Of Kitsch

  1. Great post, Madhu! You really captured the essence, the life, the vibrancy of this place!! I love it! So colorful and yet gritty at the same time… 🙂

    1. Thanks Cathy. I only regret not having been able to capture a few Tango shots. Have linked to Cornelias site to give you an idea of the kind of street tango that takes place there on a normal day

  2. Lovely storytelling Madhu! I’ve seen a fair number of pyschedelic shots from La Boca but they never told of the history behind it – I had no idea it was Genoese immigrants who built these famous metal-clad houses. Wonder what you made of all the not-so-subtle colours!

    1. Loved them actually! I am evolving from a boring beige and brown person to a lover of primary colours, although I still mostly stick to my whites and khakis for my wardrobe 🙂 La Boca was a pleasant surprise James. We were so glad we went.

  3. Love the photos and story. The colors and textures make one look for more, the architecture is exciting. What a great place to photograph and what a beautiful and informative job you made of it.

    1. It was Joseph. We were surprised by how much we liked the place after all the bad things we had read about it. Appreciate your comments.

  4. Very colorful, very picturesque. Yet it’s sad that such living conditions exist, although I suspect that will never change.

    1. I doubt very much Carol. Mainly because the influx of migrants into big cities in developing countries will always be greater than the reverse. Governments just can’t seem to cope!

  5. Hi Madhu, Thank you for telling the stories of and life in La Boca! The colors they painted on building are cheerful and creative as well!

  6. The photos and the narrative tell a lot about the place. Thank you for the piece of history. Your posts are always well thought of and done. It makes yous place always a worthy one to visit. 🙂

  7. So many arts! It looks like everywhere you turn to, there’s art. So vibrant. I can be your bodyguard in case you want to stroll there at night, Madhu. I’ll take care of your stuffs and I’ll make them dance Tango for you. Just all expenses paid, okay? 😀

  8. And you had to come up with the most interesting “barrio” in the world for this challenge.. No one can compete with you lady 😀

  9. I wish street artists were this creative in my town.. here there is only vandalism, stupid football fans scribblings or dirty words on freshly painted historic buildings – grrrr

    1. Oh that is very kind of you Lisa! No I haven’t been awarded a Booker so far 😆
      Thank you and congratulations to you too!

    1. Thank you! Terence’s post that Cheri at the Daily post had lin ked to, reminded me of these images 🙂

  10. Interesting read …….. thank you! (Oh yes, the shots are perfect) …. When are you going to publish a travel book?

  11. You’ve captured the magic of La Boca so well – it feels like I’ve been there. You’ll have to return and capture the Tango 🙂

    1. I will have to shan’t I? Wish money grew on trees 😦 The appreciating dollar is messing up our holiday budget big time!

      1. Hmmm, looks like the US economy is hurting everyone Madhu. Hopefully you’ll make a trip somewhere else and we’ll get some history lessons and cool pictures.

  12. I love your photos, as always. The manner in which you write and the history you provide really draw one in. Great post 😀

    1. Yes and passion! The football matches in the local stadium is supposed to be an experience of a lifetime 🙂 Thanks Fergie

  13. You who live surrounded by colors can never be boxed in — You’ve seen and photographed beauty in a location where I’m sure there’s a good deal more of other, grittier, uglier things. The beauty is in your eyes — like the Sufi (?) poem, My love is in my eyes, that is why I see Him everywhere.

    1. That is a such a lovely thing to say!
      I sometimes wonder whether the excessive grittiness around me, makes me ignore it and only seek the beautiful. I rarely photograph ugliness, there is enough of it around to have to be reminded of it again and again.

  14. What a colorful, vibrant place even with its sad, checkered history…. The creativity is alive there… and it seems life continues despite the harsh realities you describe. Thanks for sharing this Madhu! I thought you’d share a place in India, but why not this… It works. It’s a perfect example of an evolving urbanization of a barrio. 😉

    1. Thanks Eliz. I sadly have very few interesting shots from home – certainly not as interesting as these – because I never carried my camera with me except when I was traveling. Shall have to remedy that.

  15. This looks like a fascinating place. I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe and the Middle East, but I’ve never been to South America. I hope to go one day, and posts like these just interest me more.

      1. The “Well done, good sir, well done” comment knows no sex, for it applies to all; male and female. **Besides “Well done, good mam” just doesn’t have the same gravitas

  16. This blog entertained me with its words and photos. I am enchanted by the art in the community, and because I read what you wrote, I am now respectful of it’s past and inhabitants.

    1. I am delighted that you enjoyed this less appreciated barrio of BsAs! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  17. Thanks for bringing back memories of my visit to Buenos Aires and La Boca. It is indeed a very colorful neighborhood. I like the original reason for the colorful buildings. Dock workers would bring home leftover paint and they would simply use whatever colors they could.

    1. Happy to have stirred fond memories Vanbraman. Think I did mention waste paint from the shipyards. Thank you for the comment 🙂

  18. I enjoyed these photos very much, I did not venture into La Boca when I was in Buenos Aires. Maybe next time, this piques my interest! So colorful.

    1. We almost didn’t go, thinking it might not be safe on a quieter day. but we are so glad we did. Thank you for stopping by to comment Danzilla

    1. One would expect cold countries to be more colourful so as to brighten up the drab landscape, but strangely it is the other way round 😀 Thank you Losflamingos.

  19. Yeah….Madhu!!!! Congratulations on the FP! I always get so excited when I see my fellow travel bloggers featured! This is a brilliant post yet I think all of yours are! Congratulations again and enjoy all the responding!!!! 🙂 Nicole

    1. Thank you so much Nicole 🙂 Had no idea I had this pleasant surprise waiting for me this morning! We are traveling to Bangalore today, so i didn’t turn on my computer till about a couple of hours ago! yes, the catching up…I am so behind as it is!!!

  20. Loved your narration and the colorful pictures! Congratulations! I just saw you’ve been freshly pressed!! Well -deserved and long overdue!

  21. Madhu, how exciting to see your wonderful, colourful collection front-paged with FP! Congratulations, well deserved and have fun!

    1. Thank you! I am thrilled to bits Patti 🙂 But desperately trying to catch up, since we are in Bangalore with the grand kids!

  22. I like taking a little travel trip first thing in the morning! Nice!

    1. You are most welcome! Learning about other cultures is the best part of travel. Thank you for your comment.

  23. Great post, I lived in the Belgrano barrio of BA for almost a year. I love remembering the smell and sounds of that amazing city. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    1. Thank you. We loved BsAs and Iguassu. Our visit to the South was unfortunately cut short by ash clouds from Chile!

  24. I loved visiting La Boca during our trip to Argentina, the colorful buildings and architecture are really a site to see!

    1. It really is and I don’ t quite understand the bad reviews online! Thank you for the visit and comment Mzsura 🙂

  25. Great post. It’s nice to see the hidden charms of cities that many people are quick to dismiss.

    1. Yes, we almost didn’t go because of all those bad reviews! Thank you for taking the time to comment 🙂

  26. I congratulate you for being on FP! Your photos are so colorful, it also entertained me. Thanks for sharing your beautiful experience!

  27. Madhu, if it were up to me, you’d be “Freshly Pressed” for each and every one of your blog posts. You are a gifted story teller, travel writer and photographer who manages to weave all three talents into post after wonderful post.

    Congratulations on being recognized!


    1. Thank you Kavi! Your earlier comments seem prophetic 🙂 Thank you so much for your faith in me and the good wishes!

  28. Madhu, congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I had commented on this post earlier, I guess the FP came along later – well deserved.

  29. There is so little to add since everyone has said everything I had thought of. OUTSTANDING … and … of course, Congratulations on being Fressly Pressed. How could you not be….!!! The photos and the information is super great. How did I miss this one??? Shame on me for being behind on my visiting my blog following. You are an isnpiration to me. Thank You for always putting up very well executed posts.

    1. Let me echo the comments of Isadora entirely. A fascinating post.
      To live in a place so vibrant in colour will surely affect the wel being of the residents and make for stunning street tango.
      Does anyone of our fellow bloggers read EVERY post?

  30. Madhu! I was dead to the world, hahaha, at the time this was FP’ed but what a thrill to find out. (Truly, I am sitting here grinning like a fool.) Congratulations and I know I don’t need to say ‘keep the wonderful posts coming’ because you have been *bringing it*. 🙂

  31. That’s another country I was not able to visit during my travel years, but certainly a place I would love to have visited. Thanks for this exposure to the culture.

  32. Thanks to Marcia I was introduced to this fine commentary. South America is a fascinating place to visit and has so much interesting history.

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