If San Telmo were the boyfriend and you the prospective in-law, the highly anticipated first meeting would leave your pants charmed to the floor. Beginning with the cobblestone streets, which at once serve as stage and audience for tango dramatics, shifting the eyes upwards to the picturesque colonial buildings filled rich with Argentine history, and back down to the cafes that come right out of a steamy romance novel, Buenos Aires’ oldest barrio is the definition of enchanting.
San Telmo lacks the metropolitan hustle-bustle of the Microcentro, the massive Disney-like tourist action in colorful La Boca, the Hooters and casino of Puerto Madero, the theaters on Avenida Corrientes and the thumping nightclubs littering Palermo.
A Sunday stroll down Calle Defensa, from Parque Lezama to Plaza Dorrego and on towards the center, will make you forget all that this neighborhood may lack. The second oldest plaza in Buenos Aires transforms into an awesomely overwhelming array of stalls filled with all sorts of treasures for sale, from colorful glass soda siphons to original tango records to gorgeous antique kitchenware and beyond.
Yet, this is no ordinary flea market/antiques fair. If you’ve been to Argentina, or any Latin country for that matter, then you know such a gathering would not be complete without noise and fanfare.
Plaza Dorrego certainly serves as the nerve center of activity for the fair, but it comprises only a part of the experience. Stretching along Defensa for a total of ten blocks from top to bottom, professional tango dancers, musicians, artists and performers all of the highest quality elevate the experience to a different level. Those allergic to shopping need not fear for a lack of engaging activity.
Sunday is a day to be spent entirely within San Telmo’s streets. Once all sales are made final at 5pm, Dorrego reverts back to its normal purpose: outdoor seating for the half dozen resto-bars. From this perch one can sip on a cup of coffee and nibble on a pastry or an empanada, dine on Argentina’s world class beef, enjoy a glass of Malbec or all of the above, all while taking in the display of public dancing that begins at 8pm (in preparation to participate, of course).
The Sunday market is a unique experience that in and of itself makes a trip to San Telmo a must, but it comes around just once a week.
Permanent fixtures of the area are what give San Telmo its simultaneously classy and bohemian feel. Walking the various side streets reveals this clash of old and new: brilliant wrought iron balconies resting above intricate displays of artistic expression. The term ‘graffiti’ does not do these murals justice.
One of my favorite memories of the nine weeks I spent living kitty corner from Parque Lezama, the spot where Buenos Aires is believed to have been founded, is of a different nature and adds another dimension to my adoration for this place. Trust me when I say there are a lot of memories and a lot of adoration going on here.
San Telmo is dotted with the finest parrillas around, and I set out to sample at least a few. I got no further than my very first steakhouse, Don Ernesto (Carlos Calvo 375), before finding my spot. I have since forgotten the waiter’s name, but his bald, portly figure will remain with me always. Succulent steaks the size of my head aside, The Waiter played the starring role in my returns for second, third and fourth helpings during my tenure. He originally brought me in from the street corner (generally a tourist’s yellow flag), recommended an amazing meal along with a delicious wine, and was delightfully chatty in a way that I have not often found too often as an American tourist. What stuck with me the most was the way in which he treated me and fellow diners I brought with on ensuing visits. He remembered my order, made us gringos feel not so gringo and ensured we were taken care of as if we were actually important.
To the average person the provocative graffiti, the outdoor markets and this dining experience might not hold much significance, but these minutiae mean the world to a wide-eyed traveler looking for ways to feel at home out on the road.