La Boca, La Tourist Trap

La Boca Buenos Aires

I call this, “Tourist With Camera in Gritty Neighborhood.”

Try, if you can, to look past the jean shorts and muscle shirt in the above photo, and tell me what you see.

Looks like a pretty typical scene of a tourist snapping a photo in front of some sort of colorful attraction, right? Right.

And the picture below — what about that one?

An Asian film crew shooting some sort of television program. No biggie.

La Boca Buenos Aires

A film crew gettin’ busy.

These scenes are typical at popular tourist attractions in any city anywhere in the world. But are they the sights one sees while in a neighborhood where crime and deep poverty lurk just footsteps away? Not usually. But this is La Boca.

The La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires is one of the city’s most storied. Many of the barrio’s first settlers were Italians from Genoa, and in 1882, the neighborhood actually seceded from Argentina and raised the Genovese flag. The uprising didn’t last. Still the neighborhood has always been home to radical politics, and a rough-and-tumble population who worked on the docks and shipyards here.

Today La Boca is noted for being home to a famous fútbol stadium and the La Boca Juniors team for which the iconic Maradona once played, as well as its colorfully painted homes and storefronts, which, the story goes, were painted by settlers to cover up their rusting tin dwellings. Over the years, tourists have been increasingly drawn to the area, though the nook they flock to was created especially for them.

La Boca Buenos Aires

The painted buildings of La Boca. (Werner Bayer via Flickr)

Indeed, some enterprising folks turned a corner of the neighborhood into a colorfully painted enclave of souvenir shops and restaurants. There’s faux grittiness everywhere you turn, and lots of old gringos from Europe and America snapping pictures of “impromptu” tango dancers in the street, and even odd statues of neighborhood characters hanging from building balconies. It all feels remarkably inauthentic. Particularly when a glance around shows that nowhere else in the immediate vicinity is quite so brightly refurbished.

Still, La Boca has also earned a well-deserved reputation for being among the more crime-ridden neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, a place where no tourist should dare to go. And so it is that guidebooks, guides and locals all warn visitors of the dangers they face should they wander too far astray from the center of the barrio.

La Boca Buenos Aires

Just hanging out. (Frank Kovalchek via Flickr)

In fact, just beyond the area reserved for tourists is a genuinely downtrodden, working class neighborhood.

It’s said that networks of residents phone each other upon seeing a stray tourist and efficiently mug said tourist after he or she has wandered too far afield. And it’s not painted in brilliant, pretty primary colors. And I’m fairly confident there are not impromptu bursts of tango dancing in the streets.

La Boca Buenos Aires

Tourists, tourists everywhere! (RAYANDBEE via Flickr)

My Spanish language teacher here described La Boca as, “Muy sordido,” while an expat friend regaled us with tales of friends who were recently mugged while in the neighborhood. Yeah, beyond the confines of a renovated tourist hub, the reputation is deserved.

But if you’re a tourist, and you’re doing the tourist thing, and you want to go to some prettified corner of a working class neighborhood made nice just for you, but which doesn’t represent anything close to the reality of the neighborhood, then by all means, grab your cameras, line up your shot, and enjoy.

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