The vibrant pedestrian street El Caminito and the surrounding multicolored houses of La Boca neighborhood have turned into an icon for Buenos Aires, and one of those “must do”-activities in the city.
You have properly already seen a million pictures of La Boca’s colorful houses when scrolling pictures of Buenos Aires on Instagram or Pinterest.
However, when arriving at La Boca you quickly realize that the area has very little to do with everyday life in Buenos Aires. And this might make you wonder whether La Boca is just the biggest tourist trap in town?
In this post, I want to share my opinion about La Boca. Hopefully, I can help you to understand the place better and decide whether you want to visit or not.
What’s La Boca like to the bare eye?
The first time, I visited La Boca, I was truly disappointed. Maybe it was because I had just spent a month in Colombia visiting the most beautiful colorful villages. Even Bogotá's colorful historical center, La Candelaria had fascinated me. So, the two blocks of painted houses and crowds of tourist in La Boca didn’t impress me at all. The popular area of La Boca feels most of all like an outdoor museum completely detached to real life.
The second time, I visited La Boca half a year later, I wanted to scream and run away. It was at the peak of the summer season. The area was more than over-crowded with visitors.
The area of La Boca which everyone wants to visit is only like two blocks. You can walk in like half an hour, where half of that time you use waiting for other tourists to pass by or take their photos.
Most of the old houses in the popular area of La Boca are inhabited by souvenir shops or pricey restaurants trying to sell an “authentic” Argentine asado (e.g. barbeque)… Thus, it is properly one of the least authentic places for asado, and for sure, it will ruin your budget.
I like visiting places where I can wander around adsorbing how people go about with their everyday life… But in La Boca, you are walking around in a big crowd of tourists.
Side note: In the year and a half that I by now have lived in Buenos Aires, I have only visited La Boca these two times. It is not a place where Argentines hang out for a beer or an asado.
What’s La Boca like underneath?
There is a “La Boca” which you don’t see with the bare eye. You might have noticed that I keep on saying “the popular area of La Boca”. It is completely on purpose. La Boca is assumed to be one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of all Buenos Aires. Thus, when visiting the area around El Caminito, it can be hard to see.
During the 1830s to 1880s, the neighborhood was the place where new immigrants first established themselves when they arrived in Buenos Aires. These were usually poor European immigrants in the search for a better life in Argentina. They are said to have built their humid houses with the left-overs from the ship production in the harbor. And, to have used the left-over painting to decorate their houses – therefore, the colorful houses. Something we might not think that much about when scrolling around for the perfect picture, right?
However, today the immigrant heritage of the area still applies, since many immigrants from other Latin American countries have settled down here in the area. Just like the European immigrants in the 1880s, these people also tend to be some of the economically less-fortuned people. Read more about the real La Boca here, or check out this interview with a local porteña living in La Boca if you feel like an insider’s view.
Crime and La Boca
Tourists are usually advised to stick to the popular area around El Caminito due to the risk of being mugged or other low crime activities.
The first time, I visited the guide even told me to watch my camera. Me being annoyed with the overratedness of La Boca told the poor guide that my camera and I had survived a month alone in Colombia. So, I thought I would be fine with an hour’s visit in La Boca.
However, later I have read about tourists being unluckily when leaving the popular area. So, maybe the best idea for you is to join a tour if you want to experience other than the tourist part?
What to do in La Boca
Most tourist package tours seem to offer a quick visit to take the obligatory pictures of El Caminito, eat an asado, and see a tango show. This is more or less what there is to do if you stick to the touristic area. Thus, it is completely possible to do on your own.
Nevertheless, as you might have realized by now, I would not recommend you spend your money on food in La Boca.
Boca Junior’s stadium, La Bombonera
For people interested in football, the Boca Junior’s stadium, La Bombonera, will properly be highest on the list of things to do… But since I’m no fan of football, have never visited nor intent on doing, I will instead tell you a little story:
The colors of the famous football club, Boca Junior is today blue and yellow. Thus, it has not always been like that. The story goes that Boca Junior before had the same colors as another local football club. The two teams decided to do a match, and let the best man win.
Boca Junior lost and decided that their new colors should be the colors of the flags of the next ship embarking in the port. This ship happened to be a Swedish one! Soo, “hej då” to my Scandinavian neighbors for playing a part in the colors of Boca Junior!
Lastly, I will mention that there are both tours to see La Bombonera or to see Boca Junior match. When Boca Junior plays against their all-time enemy, River Plate, the match is called Superclásico – a classic rivalry game!
For my Danish readers, you might remember the Danish movie from some years back, Superclásico (link to the trailer with English subtitles), which takes place in Buenos Aires.
Walking tours in La Boca
There are also different walking tours offered for La Boca; Free Walks Buenos Aires, the city government's BA tours La Boca tour among others. Over at Wander Argentina, they claim to be offering a more authentic bike tour of La Boca.I have no idea about how these tours are, and whether they give you a more in-depth view on La Boca as I never tried one.
Maybe my mistake when visiting was not sign up for a tour but the information I got at the city tour organized by my university when I visited first was not very full-filling.
So, is La Boca just a tourist trap?
If you just stick to the touristic area, then, in my opinion, La Boca is just the biggest tourist trap in Buenos Aires and has nothing at all to do with life here.
However, if you do an effort to get underneath the surface and understand the history of the area, and the importance that the huge floats of immigrants have had on Buenos Aires and Argentina in general, then La Boca might be worth a visit.