La Boca is home to tango and is among the biggest tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. However, it carries one of the worst reputations for safety, which can make the independent traveler wary of visiting on their own.
I’ll cover how to make the most of your trip to La Boca and where the internet is and isn’t warranted in its safety warnings.
History of La Boca
In order to appreciate La Boca’s current state, it’s important to have a background of the district’s past.
Founded in the 1500s, the port of La Boca was developed by the Spanish when they believed that they would find silver in the area (they were so confident they even named Buenos Aires’ river “River of Silver”). When their mission failed, they turned the port into a slave trading hub.
Over time, immigrants from Europe, especially Italy, came in droves with the expectation of settling in the Patagonia region. The problem was all of the Patagonian land was bought up by about 2,000 locals.
What did that leave La Boca with?
An overcrowded district with a mesh of cultures. From this mesh emerged tango.
History of Tango
Tango didn’t have lyrics at first, due to language barriers among the immigrants.
Once lyrics started to come about, they were risqué, touching taboo topics. Although tango is now embraced by Argentinians, it’s said that tango originated from men waiting in line for a prostitute on the streets of La Boca.
The men would have “tango fights,” and the winner would get ahead in line. It’s also believed that tango emerged from immigrants combining dances from their European and African heritage. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle?
In the mid-1900s, Benito Quinquela Martín, a native of La Boca who became a famous painter, returned to La Boca a rich man after showcasing his art abroad. He bought the street now lovingly known as Caminito.
By using scraps of leftover paint that he got donated from the port, Martín spent three years restoring and painting Caminito Street to the colors we now know today. His goal was to show locals that they didn’t need a lot of money for improvements- and it worked.
All the painted streets around Caminito are the result of the locals’ own doing, thanks to Quinquela Martín’s influence. When Quinquela Martín died, he donated Caminito Street to the district of La Boca under one condition- that only artists from La Boca are allowed to sell their artwork there.
Even today, artists must show proof of identity and their address during routine police checks.
Caminito Street was only one of Quinquela Martín’s philanthropic endeavors. He purchased even more land to build a school, open a hospital, and create a space for women to breastfeed orphans. All three are still functioning today and are located near Caminito Street.
That wasn’t such a boring history lesson, was it?
Let’s move on to current-day La Boca.
Safety in La Boca
La Boca is a lot safer than it used to be. This is in large part due to Quinquela Martín’s cleanup of Caminito Street. In turn, the area has become a tourist destination.
That said, La Boca is only safe in some areas during certain parts of the day. Namely, the colorful streets immediately bordering Caminito Street between the hours of approximately 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.
Arrive earlier and you’ll be greeted by unsettling desolate streets. Stay later, and you won’t find anything but the last artists, restaurants, and street performers packing up shop.
If you follow these recommendations, you won’t have to worry about anything more than pickpockets, just as you would in any crowded, touristy area.
How to get to La Boca
Aside from the obvious taxi ride, there are two ways to get to La Boca- by foot or bus.
Wait…did I just say by foot?
Yep! And it’s safe, provided that you follow a specific route and aren’t walking at an obscure hour of the day.
How to get to La Boca by foot
Walking to La Boca is most feasible if you’re traveling from downtown Buenos Aires, or further south.
From Plaza de Mayo, walk south on Defensa. You’ll pass straight through San Telmo (a gem of a district not to be missed, especially for their Sunday market!) and Lezama Park (more about how cool of a stop this is at the end of this post).
Once you cross through Lezama Park, continue down Av. Almte Brown. After about 450 meters, take a left onto Av. Arzobispo Espinosa. This will take you to La Bombonera Stadium.
Look for the train tracks and take a left, following the tracks. They’ll lead you right to the back of Caminito Street.
The walk will take around 45 minutes from Plaza de Mayo.
How to get to La Boca by bus
If you’re taking the bus, 152 is gold. You can catch this bus from places as far away as Palermo and Recoleta, as well as from downtown Buenos Aires and San Telmo.
Coming from Palermo and Recoleta will take the longest, at about 90 and 60 minutes, respectively. Coming from downtown, it’s around a 30-minute bus ride with San Telmo approximately a 20-minute bus ride. All of these times will be reduced, if you’re lucky enough to travel on a weekend.
Once on bus 152, stay on until the last stop. It’s impossible to miss- the river will emerge on your left and everyone will get off the bus. From there, walk straight about two blocks and you’ll be at the entrance of colorful Caminito Street.
Travel Tip: You’ll need a SUBE card to take public transportation in Bueno Aires. SUBE cards can be purchased for just a couple USD at kioskos (small convenience stores). Transportation is cheap in Buenos Aires, so you’ll be able to get anywhere for under $1 USD.
Things to do in La Boca
When it comes to things to do in La Boca, options are limited and touristy but captivating.
1. Stroll down Caminito Street
This is the street that Quinquela Martín revived, and it’s the iconic site in La Boca. Caminito Street is home to the backside of colorful houses, making for great photography opportunities.
2. Go inside a Conventillo
When facing the “Havanna Triangle” with Caminito Street on your right, head down the street to the left hand side of the triangle and you’ll be on a road filled with restaurants and shops. Head inside those shops and you’ll be in the colorful backside of the buildings that you saw on Caminito Street.
The shops were formerly immigrant housing. You’ll be able to get a feel for how small the rooms were, as you roam through the now touristy stores. Some of the stores you’ll walk through used to offer a “hot bed” service. The beds were rented out on an hourly basis for men to sleep between work shifts. The constant rotation meant that linens were rarely cleaned and the beds were kept “hot” from a body always laying there.
Make sure to check out the Centro Cultural de Los Artistas. It’s by far the most popular. Aim to get there early in the day and you may be able to take some Instagram worthy shots on the colorful staircases before the hoards of tourists arrive.
3. Visit La Bombonera Stadium
La Bombonera Stadium, locally referred to as Boca Juniors Stadium, is one of the most well known and respected soccer teams in the world. If you’re brave enough, you can purchase tickets through an agency to watch a game. However, if the thought of a poorly thrown “urine bomb” landing on you, if Boca Juniors loses, is enough to make you cringe, the stadium offers tours when there isn’t a game.
To get to La Bombonera Stadium from La Boca, head down to the end of Caminito Street. Once you hit the train tracks, turn right and follow the tracks a few blocks. It’ll lead directly to the stadium. Whatever you do, don’t wander down to the left of the train tracks out of curiosity. That’s red zone territory both night and day.
Fun fact- the Boca Juniors Stadium is a dry stadium. The idea is to help reduce crowd rowdiness during a game. As you can imagine, many arrive with a good deal of alcohol already in them.
4. Take a look at the river
And by “look”, trust me that looking is all that you’ll be compelled to do. Simply cross the street from the main square and you’ll get a glimpse of the river that was once on the top 10 list for the most polluted rivers in the world. Thanks to this list, Buenos Aires began the tedious process of cleaning it up.
To the average outsider, the river still looks- and is- polluted. However, the thick sludge that used to sit on top of the water, making anything thrown into the water sink slowly under, is now gone. The city has now deemed the water safe for people to kayak in and a few years ago a live fish was spotted. It made national news for days.
5. Take a walking tour
Even though I’ve put this last on the list, I highly recommend taking a walking tour. A popular option is Free Walks Buenos Aires. They offer a two hour tour starting at 11:00am from Monday – Saturday. The name is misleading since they have a minimum fee of 400 pesos per person (Note: Due to inflation this number will likely soon increase). However, it’s worth every penny for the knowledge you’ll gain and learning where you should and shouldn’t walk when you go out exploring on your own.
The walking tour covers sites 1 – 4 on this list. Therefore, if you plan on taking a walking tour my advice is this- aim to arrive just after 10:00am when things in La Boca start opening. Walk down the two streets forming the triangle, taking your pictures without hordes of tourists in them. This is the very best time to go into Centro Cultural de Los Artistas to get those pictures of you on the stairs. Grab some coffee and an alfajor at Havanna Cafe to fuel up for your tour. Then, enjoy watching the district grow with life into the afternoon.
It’s easy to get enthralled with the impromptu tango dancers in the street. You may even get pulled in for a dance or photo. By all means, participate in these events and soak up the culture!
However, keep these things in mind:
- The dancers are doing this for a living. For street performances, the dancers will come around with their hat at the end of a dance for tips. If you watched, and especially if you took pictures, you should tip. Give whatever you’re comfortable with; You won’t be pressured on the amount to tip.
- If a tango dancer pulls you in for a photo or dance, negotiate the price ahead of time. Unlike with a general street performance, one-on-one experiences can end messy, if you didn’t negotiate the price in advance.
- Many restaurants have tango dancers performing on their doorstep. Given the tourist prices you’re paying for your mediocre food, it’s understandable to assume that the tango show is included. It’s not. So, make sure to have some spare pesos on you for tipping, especially if you took pictures. Like street performances, you won’t be pressured on the amount to tip.
Pairing a trip to La Boca with other sights of interest in Buenos Aires
Since you only need a half day, at best, to see La Boca well, it’s easy to combine this trip with other visits. My recommendation is to return to Plaza de Mayo by foot. This way, you’ll get to wander around well known San Telmo and the lesser known Lezama Park.
What’s so great about Lezama Park you ask? This:
When I first laid eyes on this beauty, I thought I found a mini Buenos Aires Disneyland. In reality, it’s a Russian Orthodox Church.
You can walk to the entrance of the church. And, if you’re luckier than I was, the doors will be open for you to enter. However, the view of the church is infinitely better from the small hilltop on Lezama Park. That’s where I took the photo above.
Aside from gawking at the church, Lezama Park offers a pretty gazebo and seating throughout, vendors selling street food, a flea market at the base, and the Argentine National Historical Museum. The museum entrance is free, although donations are encouraged, and it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
How about that! Your quarter to half day trip in La Boca just became a full day trip.
Don’t let horror stories about La Boca keep you from visiting one of the most historically and culturally rich districts in Buenos Aires. La Boca is worth the visit and may even leave you with some newfound tango skills!
Have you been, or are you thinking about, visiting La Boca? Share your experiences/questions in the comments section below!
P.S.- Are you thinking about taking a day trip from Buenos Aires? Check out my post about the Tigre Delta! I’ve also written posts on Colonia and Montevideo if you’ll be crossing into Uruguay.