In a city as popular as Buenos Aires, you are bound to stumble upon a “tourist trap” or two. For Buenos Aires, the title of top “tourist trap” would no doubt go to El Caminito. Part street museum, part public art exhibit, Caminito is a small street in the La Boca neighborhood on the southern side of Buenos Aires. It is one of the city’s top sites and is included on just about every packaged tour of Buenos Aires. Despite the popularity, it holds a rather bad reputation as a tacky, touristy, commercialized area, set up to trick tourists out of their money. While not altogether false, Caminito is far from just a tourist trap to avoid.
Ironically, Caminito was never on my “to see” list until a local friend from Buenos Aires offered to take me on chilly winter afternoon. Sure, it wasn’t the authentic Buenos Aires experience, but when a local tells you it is worth the visit, you go. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, I actually had quite a fun few hours in Caminito and I feel obligated to show other travelers why it might just be worth their time too.
The key is to approach Caminito with the right attitude. If you see a few pictures and read the travel brochure, you’ll no doubt be disappointed. The neighborhood is not an authentic representation of “Old Buenos Aires” and it doesn’t feel like you are “stepping into the past.” It is more like walking down Main Street in Disneyland – you know it is all fake and you enjoy it anyway. Caminito is a recreation of an idealized past, covered in bright colors, and used to sell travelers tacky souvenirs. Beyond that though, it is also a great place to see local artists, watch a bit of tango, and sure, pick up a few gifts for friends back home. If it didn’t have its appeal, it wouldn’t be one of the top Buenos Aires tourist attractions.
To really understand Caminito, it helps to know a bit of the area’s history. The neighborhood around Caminito is called La Boca and for many generations, it was the city’s main port. Throughout the early to mid 1800s, La Boca was the final stop for thousands of immigrants coming to the New World from Europe. Many of these immigrants were Italians with a large number of them coming from the port city of Genoa, Italy. Coming from one port city to another, it made sense for many of these new immigrants to stay in La Boca, where they might be able to find work in the shipyards. La Boca quickly grew into a vibrant, Italian immigrant community with many of their old world traditions carrying over to their new home. One significant tradition was the painting of their houses, using leftover paint from the shipyards to create bright mosaics of many different colors, which still today is the signature look of El Caminito.
The problem is that El Caminito at this time didn’t even exist. The street that is now so popular was actually a small stream throughout the 1800s. By the time the stream had dried up permanently, the immigrant communities of La Boca were no longer filled with new immigrants, just off the boat, but second generation Argentine citizens. The changing makeup of the neighborhood saw many of the traditions die out and by the mid 1900s, the bright colored homes of La Boca were much less common. The honest truth is that Caminito never held the iconic bright colored homes of old Buenos Aires but rather a stream and then later a set of railroad tracks. It wasn’t until much later, in the mid to late 1950s, when the railroad stopped running here, and the area had turned into a makeshift dump, that El Caminito as it is now know came to exist.
The birth of Caminito as a tourist destination and as a highlight of the city came about thanks to the work of one of the country’s most famous artists – Benito Quinquela Martín. Born in La Boca in the late 1800s, Benito Quinquela Martín discovered his skill as an artist at a young age. By his thirties, he was traveling the world, displaying his art in museums from the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After retiring from a life as an international artist, he returned to La Boca and used his wealth to bring many important programs and non-profit projects to his old neighborhood. One of those projects was the revitalization of the eyesore that was Caminito. The makeshift dump was removed and buildings around the old railroad tracks were repaired and painted to resemble the homes of the old La Boca immigrant communities. Low cost artist studios were set up and rented out to young artists from across the city and Caminito quickly became a haven for the art community of Buenos Aires. In 1960, the neighborhood got another important addition – a new stage set up at the southern end, quickly adding many dancers and musicians to the neighborhoods list of residents.
In the beginning Caminito was a welcoming, open place where young artists could work, learn, and exchange ideas. Many well-known Argentinian artists, musicians, and dancers got their start here. Today though, the charm has worn off a bit. There are still artists and dancers on every street corner but the vibe is one more of commercialism than the “art for the sake of art” vibe that must once have been found here. Instead, Caminito has now become a place for tourists and travelers to see a bit of Buenos Aires’ past – even if it is not quite authentic.
That being said, if you look a bit harder and give yourself some time to wander the main street and side streets around Caminito, there are still touches of the neighborhood’s past. Tango dancers can be seen here almost any day of the year and if you are only in Buenos Aires a short while, this is a great place to guarantee you see some authentic tango. The musicians here are also excellent and while many work with restaurants, you don’t have to order the overpriced, lousy food to enjoy the music. Grab a beer or mate and consider the extra you spend to be your way of supporting the arts. In the recreated conventillo style homes, you will still find many artists displaying their work and if you are looking to pick up a painting on your trip, Caminito is a great place to shop.
Yes, it is a tacky, over commercialized, and yes, it is far from “authentic” but Caminito has plenty of charm to keep people coming anyway. Disappointment is usually a result of unrealistic expectations. In Caminito, you will not experience a taste of Buenos Aires’ past and you won’t be wandering an authentic local neighborhood. Caminito is none of that. What it is is an outdoor art gallery, a modern haven for the creative youth of Buenos Aires and a place for those youth to make a bit of a living off of the Euros and Dollars of the city’s many visitors. It is worth checking out and while touristy, with the right attitude, Caminito can be quite fun.