TANGO 'TIL THE BILL DROPS IN ARGENTINA'S BIG CITY
by Martin McReynolds
American Reporter Correspondent
Buenos Aires, Argentina
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- La Boca and San Telmo used to be rundown Buenos Aires neighborhoods that were fun to visit for their decrepit charm and a musty whiff of the big city's past.
At least, that's how I remember them from the time I lived in Buenos Aires nearly 30 years ago. Now they're cluttered tourist traps so loaded with junk and sightseers that it's hard to move around.
La Boca takes its name from La Boca del Riachuelo - the Creek's Mouth - former site of Buenos Aires' port, where a stream empties into the wide Rio de la Plata. It's where many thousands of Italian immigrants settled from 1880 to 1930. They built houses with outer walls of corrugated zinc painted red, blue and yellow along streets with raised sidewalks because of chronic flooding from the river.
By the time I got to know it, the port had long since moved elsewhere due to silting. La Boca was a shabby backwater with a stagnant aroma from the Riachuelo but it retained a nostalgic allure. It was evoked in famous tango lyrics from the 1920s like "El Caminito" - the Little Street - a nickname applied to the entrance to the neighborhood. Some people even claim the tango was born in La Boca.
It was a great place for a fun evening. Groups of office workers would head to its Italian eateries to sit at long tables and share abundant meals of mediocre pasta washed down with cheap wine while small combos played music from the old country.
Now its streets are crowded with visitors - Argentines and foreigners - pushing their way through souvenir stalls loaded with garish trinkets made in China, past gyrating couples doing showy versions of the tango and passing the hat for change.
Abandoned vessels can still be seen on the waterfront and there are two towering iron bridges over the Riachuelo. One dating from 1908 is no longer in use but its image has been captured in paintings by the late Diego Quinquela Martin, a neighborhood boy who chronicled the life on the docks in works now hanging in art museums.
So La Boca remains colorful but its success at attracting tourists is drowning the authentic flavor that drew them in the first place. Despite that, some of the old charm remains. During a visit in March, my wife and I, accompanied by an Argentine friend, managed to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant jammed with locals, where we had an excellent pasta meal.
San Telmo has a different history but it's becoming the same kind of tourist hangout. Buenos Aires' oldest neighborhood, it was once occupied by the city's elite families. Many of them fled during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871 and their stately homes eventually became "conventillos" - boarding houses occupied by European immigrants.
When I first visited San Telmo, it was definitely a low-rent district, with a shabby atmosphere and old houses in a state of disrepair. But it was colorful and there were stirrings of revival as a few homes were restored and theaters moved into refurbished old buildings. A kind of Sunday flea market drew people from other neighborhoods looking for bargains.
Now the Sunday event at Plaza Dorrego, the heart of San Telmo, is filled with booths selling an array of junk, flashy couples tangoing in the street and imitators of tango singer Carlos Gardel, who died in 1935. One man wears a half-female costume and dances a grotesque tango with himself. There are bars, restaurants, boutiques, souvenir shops, antique shops and art galleries selling tango-themed paintings that vary from slick to truly tasteless.
It's worth seeing once, if you don't mind threading your way through the crowd of sightseers - Argentines, Brazilians, Uruguayans and a sprinkling of others including Brits and Americans. Again, we were able to find a reasonable restaurant patronized by locals where the food was good and cheap. And my wife browsed the antique shops till she found ancient bronze light fixtures she'd been looking for at reasonable prices.
At night, San Telmo is a place to see tango shows staged for tourists. We took in one at a tiny, picturesque joint called Bar Sur, where the tango singers were picturesque, too - performers long past retirement age who could still belt out the songs with flair. An attractive young couple danced the tango with impressive finesse but little feeling. It was fun until we got the bill - 690 pesos ($230) for four people to watch the show while consuming tiny hors d'oeuvres, two bottles of local wine and coffee. This seemed a bit high in a city where most things are cheap by dollar standards; a bus ride, for instance, costs 80 centavos - about 27 U.S. cents. But I understand other tango joints are even more expensive.
No doubt La Boca and San Telmo will continue to be on every travel agency's list of Buenos Aires sights, along with La Recoleta Cemetery - a real oddity, with its elaborate "streets" lined with ornate tombs.
But the city has a lot more to offer visitors, starting with Puerto Madero, the former dock area that now houses upscale restaurants amid abandoned loading cranes standing as monuments to the past and a gleaming white modern bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The area was the site of a display of the Cow Parade that opened in March, of dozens of life-size plastic cows painted in fanciful fashion.
There's Teatro Colon, the famed opera house that opened in 1908, where we saw an excellent production of Puccini's "La Boheme." And there are wonderful art museums including the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA), plus smaller galleries at the Centro Cultural Borges, located in the Galeria Pacifico, an airy multi-story shopping center with luxury stores surrounding an atrium where the walls are covered with murals by some of Argentina's best painters.
And there's the city itself - from noisy Avenida Nueve de Julio (Argentines claim it's the world's widest boulevard) anchored by a replica of the Washington Monument known as El Obelisco to the Plaza de Mayo where Domingo and Eva Peron addressed thousands of cheering supporters, to the parks and green spaces.
There's plenty to see and do see besides joining the throngs at La Boca and San Telmo.
AR Correspondent Marty McReynolds has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in journalism. This is his first piece for The American Reporter.