Background

Buenos Aires was officially founded in 1536 by Pedro de Mendoza acting on orders from his Spanish King. A small fort was built (most researchers place the fort closer to modern day San Isidro north of the current-day city), and a small band of settlers were left to eek out a living. The settlement failed after a few precious years and it was left up to Juan de Garay (who has a street named after him in San Telmo) forty odd years later, in 1580, to found - for the second time - the city he named Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre. Not surprisingly, the name in its entirety, didn't stick. It was shortened to Santa María del Buen Aire, then shortened again to simply Buenos Aires.

However, in present day Buenos Aires nothing remains of this early settlement, which also didn't take off as a city for some 200 years. It has none of the colonial splendour of Salta (in the northwest of Argentina), because while Salta was by that time a busy administrative centre on the main trade route for silver and mules from the main Spanish colony of Alto Perú, Santa María del Buen Aire, the city of the 'good winds', was left to fester, her port used only for a roaring trade in contraband. But later on Jesuits came and built schools, churches and the country's first university in what is now San Telmo, a legacy left in the wonderful Manzana de las Luces, which you can still explore today.

In 1776 Buenos Aires became Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata area, putting it firmly on the map for trade, and the city's strategic position on this estuary brought wealth and progress. Two invasions by the British for control of the port in 1806 and 1807, were quickly quelled, but sparked a surge for independence in the burgeoning Argentine nation. There is a street in San Telmo called Defensa which marks the limit of where the British soldiers reached, when residents were ordered by the Army, lacking in weapons, to pour boiling oil from the building tops to stop the invasion. Hence the name Defensa - defence. After separating from Spain in 1816, Buenos Aires became its new capital, giving the Porteños a further sense of pride.

By 1914, Buenos Aires was rightfully regarded as the most important city in South America. The wealth generated from the vast fertile pampas, inhabited by the immigrants from Europe, manifested in the flamboyant architecture you see in Teatro Colón, Avenida de Mayo and the palaces of Recoleta. Massive waves of immigration from Italy and Spain had arrived in Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, creating the characteristic Argentine identity, and the language described most accurately as Spanish spoken by Italians. The tango was born in the port areas of the city, music filled with nostalgia for the places left behind, and currently enjoying a revival among 20-somethings, who fill the milongas, breathing new passion into old steps. Now, nearly a third of the country's 36 million inhabitants live in Gran Buenos Aires, in the sprawling conurbation which stretches west from the smart areas of Palermo, Martínez, and up market San Isidro, to the poorer Avellaneda and La Matanza. Shanty towns, called villas, surround the city and the most famous Villa 31 can be seen behind Retiro bus station in the centre, which you will see if you catch any long distance bus. It is all part of the colourful stew of Buenos Aires' life. It is truly one of the world's great cities, and a fine start to your trip to Argentina.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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