La Boca, social history and tourist traps

La Boca is a colourful place that comes with a fascinating social history, but visit today and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered into a weird working-class theme park. The ‘La Boca’ that most people would recognise, and most tourists visit, is made up of the Boca Juniors football stadium, La Bombonera, and the colourful streets of brightly painted ramshackle houses, tango dancers and tourist trap restaurants, El Caminito. The rest of La Boca is a rough and ready working-class district, one of the poorest in the capital.

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bus loads of tourists visit daily to glimpse this historic working-class barrio that has become a cultural reference point for the nation. As a consequence, the area has been transformed into a tourist ghetto. In neighbouring streets the reality of modern-day poverty goes unseen, because it’s just too dangerous for tourists to walk around the area outside El Caminito. A tourist might, on occasion, be unfortunate enough to be liberated of their wallet, but I doubt the local community sees much tourism money.

La Boca has always been an immigrant area, it was Buenos Aires’ original port and the first place most new arrivals would see when they reached Argentina from Europe. In the 1830s a huge number of migrants arrived from Italy, the majority from the Genoa region. They washed ashore in La Boca, changing the barrio and Argentinian society for ever. Later in the 19th century, they were joined by waves of migration from Ireland, Spain, Germany and other European countries. European’s have now been supplanted by economic migrants from Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and further afield.

The majority of new arrivals were (and are) poor, and they built their homes from whatever scrap materials they could find, including the corrugated metal sheets that can still be seen in the area. They painted their houses with leftover paint, bequeathing La Boca the vibrant colours and bohemian flavour it’s famed for today. Amidst these crowded streets, and the melting pot of cultures and languages, tango is said to have been born (although there are rivals for that crown).

The port of La Boca provided employment and the area was one of the most populous in the city. Disaster arrived in the shape of Puerto Madero, a new port further to the north that opened at the turn of the 20th century. People migrated to other areas in the city and La Boca entered a period of decline. A revival of sorts began in the 1950s driven by local artist, Benito Quinquela Martín. He convinced people to start painting their houses in the bright colours of the first immigrants, and promoted dance, music and theatre.

Bus to La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Bus to La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

After lobbying by Martín and others, the city declared the streets of El Caminito an open air museum in 1959. It’s been drawing tourists ever since, although I imagine its evolution to modern-day tourist trap wasn’t the original plan. That’s not to say that La Boca isn’t worth visiting. It’s still an interesting place, with a couple of outstanding museums and galleries in the vicinity. The Proa gallery overlooks the river close to El Caminito, it had an Ai Weiwei exhibit when we were there, including Forever Bicycles outside the entrance.

We wandered the area for a while, stopped for a snack and watched tango dancers entertaining the crowds, before jumping in a taxi to La Usina del Arte. The taxi driver somehow managed to massively overcharge us for the short journey. The Usina was opened a few years ago in the old Italo Argentina de Electricidad building, which was an operational electricity plant until 1997. Today, the 7,500m2 space houses theatres, exhibitions and even a 1,200 seat symphony hall. It’s worth visiting if you’re in the area, especially if afterwards you can snag a table at the legendary restaurant, El Obrero, just around the corner.

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rainbow car, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rainbow car, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forever Bicycles, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Forever Bicycles, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Playa los Cocos, a Cuban idyll

Imagine a golden crescent of sand, sparkling azure waters and a brightly painted Cuban village nestling amidst palm trees on the edge of the ocean. Throw in a couple of thatched-roofed beach bars and a scattering of people lounging on the sand, and you will be imagining what Playa los Cocos and the village of La Boca looks like. A Cuban paradise by the sea.

Rafael, our charming and resourceful casa owner in Camaguey, had told us not to leave Cayo Santa Lucia without spending at least one day at Playa los Cocos; and not to leave Playa los Cocos before we’d drunk rum and eaten grilled fish caught by the villagers of La Boca on the beach. It seemed like a challenge of which we were capable.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

La Boca and Playa los Cocos stand at the top of Cayo Santa Lucia, about 10km away from the hotel resorts on Playa Santa Lucia. Even though the development on Playa Santa Lucia is pretty low key (especially compared to other Cuban resorts), the contrast with Playa los Cocos couldn’t be more pronounced.

Two wooden shacks serving food and drinks are the only buildings on the beach, beyond this there is no tourist development whatsoever. Only a potholed dirt road connects Playa los Cocos to the rest of the world. I imagine that will change in coming years, but hopefully the salt flats behind the beach, where dozens of flamingos live, might prevent the developers from destroying this atmospheric spot.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

We took a taxi to the beach early in the morning, and arranged for the driver to collect us later. When we arrived there was nobody around, so we strolled along the beach away from the village. The shore quickly became rocky, but we found a small beach amidst the rocks that we claimed as our own for a couple of hours. No people, and only the sound of the wind and sea for company. Blissful.

Eventually we were joined by a Cuban couple and their young daughter. Hunger was getting the better of us, so we shuffled off back to the main beach to see if the bars had opened. They had and a couple of dozen people, Cubans and tourists, had arrived on the beach. We had a delicious lunch of fish and prawns washed down with cold beer at the El Bucanero restaurant, and then hired a couple of loungers for the rest of the day.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

I’m not very good at sitting on the beach, so after a while I took off to go and explore the village of La Boca and the coast further around the headland. The village is small, dirt roads and weather-beaten wooden houses give it a ramshackle and careworn feeling. People are friendly though, and I was invited into one house by a man who was keen to show me a whalebone from a whale that had washed ashore.

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Playa los Cocos and La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia, Cuba

Walking further down the deserted coast was fantastic. A sailing boat passed close to the coast, some fishermen floated in inflated tire inner tubes, and a few seabirds wheeled overhead. I took swim from a small patch of sand and bobbed around for a while before heading back to the main beach. It was idyllic.