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San Telmo, Buenos Aires – a mecca for tourists

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San Telmo nocturno - San Telmo nocturnalSan Telmo, Buenos Aires – a mecca for tourists
Sometimes a new place just reaches out and takes you into its arms. One minute, Carla Jacome was part of the crowd of tourists taking in a Sunday morning tango demonstration at San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego. The next, she was part of the show, gliding through the unfamiliar steps in the firm embrace of tango maestro Osvaldo Boo, the picture of suave elegance in a dark gray suit, fedora and white scarf.

Welcome to San Telmo, an aging downtown barrio that has long been a mecca for foreign tourists and Argentines, all drawn by its antiques and artisans, its street musicians, mimes and dancers and its tango bars.

Once an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood, San Telmo was abandoned by the wealthy en masse in the late 19th century over a yellow fever scare. It was soon claimed by immigrants and the lower classes, and it hasn’t changed much since.

“San Telmo is known throughout South America as a bohemian barrio. It’s very dynamic, with lots of young people, and on Friday and Saturday nights, the bars are full,” said Kike Gonzalez, manager of Todo Mundo Bar, which anchors a corner of the plaza.

With Bogart, Valentino, Chaplin, Fellini and King Oliver staring down from posters on the barroom walls, Gonzalez said San Telmo offers the visitor the unrefined flavor of Argentina and at a bargain price.

Afterward, they can wander the narrow streets, visiting the ancient churches, museums and a huge indoor San Telmo market, where everything from a chunk of fresh meat to 19th-century memorabilia to cell phone paraphernalia is for sale.

“It’s also an historical area with very well-preserved convents and tunnels from the colonial epoch. The whole neighborhood is linked by tunnels that were used for smuggling and protection,” Gonzalez said.

With its many youth hostels for the back-packers, converted apartments, a sprinkling of middle-class hotels, boutique hotels, and one upscale gay hotel, staying here for a few days is affordable. Accommodations are easily arranged in advance over the Internet.

Sunday is the big day in San Telmo, when the antiques sellers jam the plaza. Performers of every stripe command the streets, with the acts being limited only by the imagination.

All around, tourists, both domestic and foreign jammed the streets.

“We’ve been to Buenos Aires, but this is our first time here. It’s magnificent,” said Jose Martinez, 55, visiting from Andalusia, Spain.

“This plaza is a marvel with all the antiques and the buildings are also very well preserved,” he commented as he shopped for reproductions of 18th-century oil paintings.

The open-air antiques market falls somewhere between an upscale flea market and a museum liquidation, as it seems that every piece of old silver in Argentina is on sale here, along with jewelry, glassware, copperware and great varieties of art.

Among the other charms of San Telmo are the well-preserved bars, some of which open early for regulars looking for a morning coffee, then serve sandwiches and plates of picadas — meats, cheeses, olives and fruits — through the afternoon, and then roll out the meat and pasta dishes in the evenings.

One of the most authentic is the Federal, which traces its beginnings to 1864 when it opened as a “despacho de bebidas,” or a place where hard drink was handed out to passing customers.

Eventually it became a sit-down bar with a kitchen, and it maintains the look of that era, with a huge oak bar featuring a carved arc, musty salamis and proscuitti hanging above, and heavy rounds of cheese on the counter behind the bar.

“I’m proud to be working in a bar like this. I wouldn’t just work in any bar. I also present tango productions, and for me, the culture and tradition have great value,” said Ginesta.

At his booth in the century old San Telmo Mercado, where he sells printed collectables ranging from old books, to old movie posters to erotica, Willie Campion, 63, took a stab at explaining San Telmo.

“Here you can find the essence of Argentina. The people are fascinated by this place. Everywhere else, things have changed a lot, because of social and economic forces,” he said.

“San Telmo still has the spirit of old Buenos Aires. There are fewer antique shops, more graffiti and modern shops, but there are still tango bars, and the neighbors are keeping the spirit of the place,” he said.

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