Tunnel vision in San Telmo

Underground tunnel in San Telmo that tells a story of Buenos Aires' past

Just around the corner from my favourite watering hole here, among the cobbled streets and colonial architecture on Defensa there is a whitewashed building that catches the eye. Although rich in history and culture, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, San Telmo, retains a classy unassuming quality. Persist with this building, dig a little deeper, for there’s a gem waiting to be discovered. Whereas tunnel vision might usually impair one’s vision, in this most charismatic quarter of Buenos Aires it is an essential navigation tool.

Sunday was hot, very hot, 34 degrees Celsius in fact. I took it upon myself to make the hour-long stroll from Recoleta to San Telmo in the beating sun. A happy medium between the numbered logic of New York’s blocks and the randomness of London’s charming old streets, the avenues of Buenos Aires are straightforward enough to negotiate on foot. Watched by Evita, I approached the large steel image of her making an impassioned speech on the north side of the Edificio del Ministerio de Salud. Continuing my urban trek down 9 de Julio, I proceeded with my back to a more placid version of her stately portrait complete with rosette, on the south side. Not long afterwards I was in San Telmo, and El Zanjón de Granados.

A place of fabled archaeological importance, El Zanjón de Granados is said to be what remains of the first settlement in Buenos Aires, dating back to 1536. Two centuries later, the underground labyrinthine tunnels serving as advanced sewage systems below the family mansion were constructed. These have all been restored immaculately. This only happened recently as well, thanks to Jorge Eckstein who chanced upon the site in 1986, after he had purchased the land for a business project. Thankfully, he insisted on a different direction for its use and has spent the ensuing years tirelessly repurposing his original venture into the museum it is today.

The lighting truly captures the astonishingly replenished brickwork to full effect, whilst steel girders and iron beams are in place to support centuries of history. The tunnels, dipping to the centre for irrigation purposes, were strategically built directly above a tributary of the Río de la Plata. Not only do they tell a story of the capital’s humble beginnings, but they also point to a design that has been maintained ever since. Yes, even today, from the moment the river flows into Puerto Madero it is rerouted below the city, unseen, unheard.

Something neither unseen nor unheard however is the famous San Telmo Feria on market day, captured at its frenetic best on Sundays. What a perfectly orchestrated coincidence, then, that immediately upon stepping out of the door of the historic mansion I was in its midst.

An assortment of all things elegantly handmade, boorishly touristic or somewhere inbetween, the very essence of Argentina is captured by this organised chaos. Here, more than most other parts of Buenos Aires, overwhelmed excursionists make easy pickings for the less savoury of the local population. Therefore, it is particularly important to stay alert amid the disorder of the stalls that spill onto both sides of all streets in the vicinity, as a foreigner’s wallet makes quite the catch in these parts.

Hands – my own – in pockets, and blinkers on, I whizzed through the scene with wilful abandonment of my peripheral vision. A whizz comparative to some of the naive dawdling on display anyway. Succumbing to the heat, my spending only got as far as haggling down a cup of squeezed orange juice to 40 Pesos in the end. This was an absolute necessity though. Not long afterwards I retreated into the shade and then home a thirsty, overheated young man. If only there had been a source of water nearby.

 

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