A pulsating sea of blue and gold reverberated throughout the stadium as excited Boca Juniors fans erupted in songs, made lewd arm gestures and spewed insults about the player’s mother’s “concha” and were not talking about a pet cat here. We were in La Bombonera stadium watching a match between the Boca Juniors and Defensa y Justicia and it was absolutely one wild experience.
After missing out on our personal Nat Geo moment in the Península Valdés, we were undecided as to where to go next. Our original plan was to hit Argentina’s wine country in Mendoza but G was against it, imagining it would be another Bariloche but with wine. He also refused to endure another overnight bus ride after our mini-fiasco bus trip to Puerto Madryn.
So where to go? We knew when we left Buenos Aires the first time that we still had some unfinished business there including a tour of the vibrant La Boca neighborhood and a chance to see a soccer match. So that’s how we found ourselves in Buenos Aires again.
An added bonus about going back to Buenos Aires is that we were able to experience a different part of the city. Instead of staying in the overly trendy Palermo we decided to base ourselves in the more lively but refined Recoleta neighborhood this time around. The restaurants and shops in this area were less pretentious and much more authentic which included some of the tastiest empanadas we had from a hole-in-the wall bar.
We visited museums that we missed during our first visit including MALBA (Museum of Latin American art) and the Xul Solar museum. We came away with a bigger appreciation of his art, so much so that D even went back to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes to catch a special exhibit with more of his work. A visit to the historical Cafe Tortoni gave us the chance to try their famous hot chocolate and churros, which were overrated.
Greatest Spectator Sport
But this was just all filler for the real reason we were here, to experience the ultimate spectator sport, South American soccer or fútbol. And Buenos Aires just happened to be where the top soccer clubs in Argentina play. We managed to score tickets to a Boca Juniors game, the most popular and successful soccer team in Argentina. It’s also where Madarona “Hand of God” played.
The games are played in Estadio Alberto J. Armando (nicknamed La Bombonera, literally “chocolate box”, due to its boxy shape) in the working class neighborhood of La Boca and are legendary for the boisterous and raucous atmosphere where insanely passionate fans chant and sing throughout the entire game. The games also developed a reputation for being dangerous because of high incidents of violence against visiting teams’ fans to such an extent that visiting team fans are now banned from all professional league matches. Even not showing enough enthusiasm with your singing and arm gestures can get you in trouble. So, yeah, we were excited about seeing a game at their home stadium.
On the night of the game we met our guide, Andres, at the pick-up point in the Palermo neighborhood along with several Americans, Brits and an Aussie (coincidently three of the Americans were Cal graduates. Go Bears!). A chartered mini-bus took us to the pre-game gathering at Bier Life in the San Telmo neighborhood where we met up with more tourists (about 60 total) and filled up with bondiolas and beer.
After learning a few NSFW chants and singing the Dale Dale Boca cheer we were all pumped up for the game. Just before we left for the stadium, Andres pulled D aside and surprised her by giving her a free upgrade to the L sector (lower deck, sidelines) from the cheap K sector (upper deck, behind the goal). We originally thought that Andres upgraded our seats because we were the only cheapskates in the K sector and they wanted to keep the group together but it turned out we were the only ones that were upgraded. Guess our good karma is back.
On the way to the stadium, Andres got everyone’s attention and gave us the scoop on what was going to happen:
- First, the dos and don’ts for the game including stadium etiquette.
- Second, how to go through security. Men and women will be separated, females with female police, males with males.
- And finally, our tickets were “borrowed” membership ID cards so we had to assume a new identity and give them back after the game.
Transferring membership cards was like a drug deal going down (not that we would know). The exchange all happened in a dark corner at the edge of La Boca where our guides greeted shadowy figures before completing the transactions. The cards were then distributed where G’s was Hernan and D was Carmelo for the night. How was D going to pass as a Carmelo?
We were then herded as a tight group through the dark streets of La Boca up to the stadium entrance. The streets were crowded with fans, residents and police in riot gear.
When we reached the stadium our guides helped get us through the gate with “our” IDs and escorted us to our seats ensuring that we did not encounter any trouble along the way.
Dale Dale Dale Boca!
From the moment we reached the stadium, we could hear the singing and it just got louder as we reached our seats. All the excitement was coming from the populares (bleacher) section located at the endzone where fans were jumping up and down, holding banners and singing non-stop to the beat of carnival drums.
Only the most deranged fans sit in this section as it is considered dangerous as passions can quickly turn into violence. It was good thing we got upgraded as we got a good view of the crazy fans acting up in the populares section.
The stadium itself is a concrete rectangle with stadium seating on only three sides and so small that there is only maybe two feet of sideline. The field was surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire on top to protect the opponents team’s players from crazy fans and flying objects. Police with riot gear were stationed at each corner of the field as an added layer of protection in case some fan managed to break through the barricade.We were seated really close to the action on the 10th row. G managed to make conversation with some regulars who were happy to tell him about the team and hear his thoughts on soccer and Argentina.
D, on the other hand, sat next to a guy who gave out a creepy psycho killer vibe. He engaged G in some conversation with short curt questions and answers and did not crack a smile through most of the game. D was worried that if she didn’t gesture or cheer enthusiastically enough that he would become unhinged and take it out on her. Yeah that’s how intense some of these fans can get. Unfortunately, Boca Juniors were not playing well and this just led to more tension and hostility among the fans. Everyone including an old sweet women behind us was yelling profanity at the players. They were awesome!!! In the 85th minute, the Boca Juniors finally scored and the whole place erupted in singing & cheering with people hugging and giving high-fives. Even creepy pyscho killer fan finally cracked a smile and relaxed. As we left after the game, the populares section and much of the crowd were still singing, gesturing and bouncing. Overall, it was expensive but totally worth it. Dale Boca!!
La Boca’s Caminito
Two days later we were walking the same streets that were previously overrun with Boca Junior fans but were now filled with families and vigilant tourists. We were taking a tour of La Boca with Buenos Aires Free Walks to learn more about this working class neighborhood known for its brightly painted buildings, the birthplace of Tango and, of course, soccer.
La Boca is known for being a fairly dangerous neighborhood, and guidebooks and forums are full of warnings to take the usual precautions and stick to the main tourist area. There have been many reports of tourists getting mugged and attacked. And don’t even think about visiting at night. This was another reason we decided to take a guided tour.
We left G’s camera behind and took D’s after replacing the SD card to make sure we wouldn’t lose our pictures in case it got stolen. We carried minimal cash and even wore a money belt for the first time during our whole year in travel, underscoring the paranoia D felt about the place.
Getting to La Boca from the Recoleta was kind of a pain in the butt. Our options were to take an expensive taxi ride, a 2 hour bus ride or take the subte part way and cab it the rest of the way. We opted for the last option.
We were dropped off at the port end of Caminito, the main tourists drag, and still had 45 minutes before the tour started. So we killed time gawking at the brightly-colored buildings, Tango Dancers and the ridiculously tacky life-size statues of famous Argentines, giving this neighborhood a very cool but Disneyish vibe. There were police pretty much stationed on every corner of main drag, so D felt silly for having being paranoid in the first place.
We met our guide, Rodrigo, who started the tour by warning us which areas to avoid unless we want to get mugged. Don’t go behind those warehouses (pointing behind us) and don’t go across the bridge (pointing in front of us). Yep got it. No warehouses, no crossing the bridge.
He then launched right into the history of La Boca. It was once the main shipping port for BA but nearly became another forgotten slum when shipping shifted upriver. It was brought back from obscurity by its artist community. We wound our way through the streets hearing about the settling of Argentina, the blending of the diverse cultures and how Tango was invented. Every wall in the main center of the neighborhood is painted with bright colors and huge colorful murals that reflect its political past and present.
The tour ended at La Bombonera, which sits in a part of town where every building is painted blue and gold.
We learned that the name “Juniors” reflects the fact that the team started as a 15’s team that shared the stadium with their arch rivals River Plate. They both even wore the same colors, red and white. As the two teams became the top two teams in Argentina, they decided to not share the same stadium. So how do two soccer teams decide who stays and who goes? With a soccer match of course. The winner of the single match keeps the stadium and the loser keeps the colors. And now we have a rivalry between a blue and gold team and a red and white team. Sound familiar?
And we will end our La Boca tour with another video of the Boca Juniors game.
Buenos Aires, AR
You have to be a club member to buy tickets to Boca Junior games so the only way to get tickets is to go through an agency who can arrange to “borrow” membership cards. I’m not sure how they secure the membership cards but ignorance of the process is probably best here. Their soccer package includes transportation to the stadium, pre-game meal and beer and guides who escorts you to and from the gate or your seats depending on which package you purchased. Let’s just say the cheap K sector package doesn’t get a personal escort to their seats and are in another section during the game.
Being cheapskates we bought the sector K seats which are pretty much the nosebleed seats right above the populares section where the ultras sit. It was a good thing we got upgraded to the L sector as we would not have been able to see the fans in the populares section doing their thing. These tickets are not cheap. It costs us about $200 USD each but it was so worth it to experience soccer the Argentine way.
Buenos Aires Free Walks
Buenos Aires, AR
Great way to experience La Boca and learn about the history in relative safety. You have to get yourself to the meeting point at corner of Magallanes and Caminito and then meet up with the tour guide. Tours of La Boca takes place Mon-Sat at 11am so all you need to do is show up. The guide will be wearing a bright orange shirt so no problem spotting them. The costs is 200 ARS or $12. The tour was worth it so you get a history of the neighborhood which you would not otherwise. Though in retrospect if you want to explore this part of town without a tour you can and you will be perfectly safe as long as you stick to the main tourist area. From here we decided to walk back and were out of the main tourist area and experience no problems.
They offer free tours to other parts of the city but are tip-based.
Buenos Aires, AR
Booked through Airbnb
Advertised as “Brand new Studio in Recoleta” we thought we were renting a studio apartment from Sebastian. Instead the studio was part of the ARC Recoleta Boutique Hotel. The building was brand new and in a good location, about a 15 minute walk to Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and Recoleta Cemetery. Rooms were spacious with all modern amenities and super clean. Although we were on the 1st floor it was very quiet as the rooms faced the interior courtyard. A/C worked too well as it blasted cold air over the bed while we tried to sleep. TV sucked as the programs were dubbed in Spanish and what was in English was unwatchable. There is a manned 24 hour front desk in the lobby. Includes laundry facilities which we needed badly.
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
If the number of locals who stopped by after work to take home packages of empanadas is any indication, this tiny hole-in-the wall bar must have the best empanadas around. They are known for their pikachu (not related to anything pokemon), loaded with cheese, onions and a mild spicy sauce. We ordered six empanadas: carne, carne picante, pollo, 2 pickachus and corn/cheese. They were awesome and juicy.
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
An unassuming place that is popular with tourist for it “authentic” atmosphere, this place is known for it empanadas, tamales and having the best locro. Instead G got more empanadas which he thought were good but not as good as La Cocina and D order tamale which was OK. Place is really cheap but a overrated, though to be fair we did not order their signature dish the locro.
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
Cosy colorful restaurant that serves a variety of cazuelas (stews cooked in a clay pot) including lentil, beef, corn and locro. We ordered the locro and a salad. The locro was very good. Reminded G of a Cuban soup ajiaco.
La Casita de Tucuman
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
A take-out empanada place right around the corner from where we were staying. The empanadas were cooked to order and very good. We ordered one beef, two beef picante, one pollo, one corn and one fugazetta.
El Puestito del Tío
Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires
We revisited our favorite food stand for their excellent churrasquito and bondiola sandwiches. Didn’t seem as good as before. Maybe we’re jaded.
Recoleta, Buenos Aires
Old school no-frills parillas with servers in bow ties and starched white shirts. G got the bife de chorizo, D got tira de asada (short ribs) and we split a salad. Our order came with a huge empanada. The bife de chorizo was huge. Not as good as the parillas in the Palermo neighborhood. I would stick to the parillas in the Palermo neighborhood.
Random Choripan Stand
La Boca, Buenos Aires
After the tour we got choripan at this random stand. Although it was tasty we paid for it later when we experienced some stomach problems.