Americas, Argentina, Buenos Aires

San Telmo: Tango, tenements, and tragos

No Comments 17 July 2010

San Telmo: Tango, tenements, and tragos

Perhaps the most atmospheric neighborhood in all of Buenos Aires, historic San Telmo is one of the Monkey’s personal favorites. This post features some of his photos from a 2004 visit.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
San Telmo is one of the quintessential barrios of Buenos Aires. Once a preserve of the city’s well-to-do, the neighborhood was all but abandoned by the rich when yellow fever broke out in low-lying barrios in 1871. As the rich moved on to higher—and less crowded—surroundings in Retiro and Barrio Norte, luxurious homes were converted to tenements, or conventillos, and newly arrived immigrants took up residence in San Telmo. As such, the quarter retained a certain air of the Buenos Aires of old—with tight cobblestone streets, balconied buildings, and deep, narrow lots—that other parts of the city do not have. A cluster of historic tango bars also added to the aura. In recent decades, San Telmo’s charm and cheap rents have drawn artists and other bohemian types into the quarter, and today it is one of the city’s most unique and intriguing neighborhoods. Here, El Mono smiles uncontrollably at the beauty of San Telmo.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Conventillos are sometimes called “sausage houses” due to the long, skinny plots on which they were built. In this shot, the Monkey is at the far, interior end of such a structure, now redone as an antique bazaar dubbed the Pasaje de Defensa. While this example was in fact a wealthy family residence, it shares the tenement feature of open courtyards where residents would cook, clean, and socialize. You can make out the second patio by peering up the corridor at left.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
San Telmo’s parish church is the pretty Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belén, which dates from 1805. The church is on a typically narrow street near San Telmo’s central square, Plaza Dorrego. The Monkey dropped by for a breather from the crowds that swamp the barrio on Sundays when it hosts the Fería de San Telmo, a street market of antiques, tango performances, local crafts, and other curiosities.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
This interior courtyard shows some of the charm and decadence that San Telmo exudes. Crumbling walls expose bricks, plants overgrow their intended limits, and narrow passageways beckon. The Monkey gets off on this kind of stuff.

Las Marias II, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
During his 2004 visit, the Monkey dropped by what was had been his favorite pizzeria in Buenos Aires during his 1997 and 1998 residency in the city. The restaurant—formerly called Las Marias II—had changed owners, but still offered delicious pizza and a no-frills, fun ambience. For old times’ sake, the Monkey ordered a bottle of the utterly affordable and surprisingly good vino tinto, Vasco Viejo (Old Basque). The Monkey was a bit tipsy by this point…

Bar Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Monkey takes a break from antiquing to down a trago of clerico at his preferred Buenos Aires watering hole, Bar Dorrego on San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego. Clerico could best be characterized as a white wine-based sangria, while Bar Dorrego could best be characterized as a romantic’s vision of Buenos Aires, with its dimly lit interior and rustic furniture, the buzz of its patrons, and the view its enormous windows command of the streetlife rushing over the old cobblestones.

Don’t take the Monkey’s word for it: go see for yourself!

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
San Telmo’s Mercado Municipal was once a large, covered food bazaar. These days, while you can still pick up fruits and vegetables, you’re more likely to find old lamps and dusty books in most of the stalls. The Monkey wanted to see the iron-frame architecture, reminiscent of Victorian London.

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Monkey watches a tango show at one of San Telmo’s classic bars, El Viejo Almacen.

Tango’s history couldn’t be more contrary to the common perception of it as a stiff, elitist dance. Tango was born in the working class barrios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, where immigrant dock workers blended their African, European, and “New World” musical traditions into a hybrid new sound. The music and the intricate dance became a hit in the bordellos and bars, where men often danced with men as the ladies of the night watched approvingly. On the road between the old ports of La Boca and the center of the city, and hosting hordes of new immigrants, turn of the century San Telmo was a perfect breeding ground for the scandalous tango. As soon as they caught wind of it, the elites of Bueno Aires and Montevideo voiced their disgust for the libidinous dance.

But tango—as a music and dance—was popular, in both senses of the word. It spread, with the help of sailors, to France, where it was similarly chastised by elites and enthusiastically picked up by others who encountered it. Back in Buenos Aires, tango enraptured a small but influential pool of young porteño playboys who enjoyed “slumming” in the rowdy bordellos, and they also helped transmit the music to Paris, the acknowledged capital of good taste at the time. As tango’s buzz grew, the ears of Hollywood executives perked up, and soon Rudolph Valentino and other screen heartthrobs were dancing a whitewashed version of the dance, to a cleaned up version of the music. Despite its inauthentic nature, Hollywood’s take on tango also spread its appeal, and tango became a ballroom phenomenon in Europe and North and South America.

The “authentic” strand blossomed, too, and in the 1920s and 1930s, Carlos Gardel became the first—and probably greatest—tango superstar, dying before his time in a Colombian plane crash in 1935. Argentines are fond of saying of Gardel, “He sings better every year.” In the 1940s and 1950s tango groups and orchestras like those of Pugliese and Troilo were to Argentina what jazz quintets and big bands were to the United States. Ever modifying—perhaps most magnificently under Piazzolla— but always true to its roots, tango remains a pensive, heartfelt music and a sensual, intimate dance—not to mention one of Argentina’s most important contributions to global culture.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 1166 times since the 2010 website relaunch.



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40,482,000 (2008)

Land area:

2,736,690 sq. km.


Buenos Aires (city: 3,000,000; metro: 12,000,000; 2005)


In 2006, Argentina ranked 34th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 30th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $5,471.76. Public debt accounts for 59 percent of total GDP, while 23.4 percent of Argentines are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):


Monkey's name:

El Monito (El Mo-nee-toh)

Fun fact:

Argentina is the world’s 5th largest wine producing nation, and rests in 6th place for total consumption (France tops both lists). The Argentines love their wine: they rank 8th in the world in per capita consumption, with the average Argie drinking upward of 35 liters per year.

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