Take the cheap $1 aisle at WalMart, smash it into a lane about 12 feet wide and stretch it out so that it runs about 16 city blocks. Then stock it with every kind of black velvet painting — including Elvis — that you can find. Sprinkle in a dump truck full of “genuine” mate gourds, made in China of course and for good measure, throw in a bunch of handcrafted leather wallets, purses and jackets which aren’t handcrafted locally, but rather made in a sweatshop somewhere in Bejing.
You have just created the biggest tourist attraction in Buenos Aires, Argentina — the San Telmo shopping experience.
Pitched on every tour operators website and on the front of more four color slick paper brochures than can be counted by Bill Gates accountants, the San Telmo shopping distrist is probably one of the most overrated tourist experiences in the world.
Started many years ago as a way for genuine local merchants to sell their crafts without the imposition of a state tax, San Telmo ws the place to find blanket and broom weavers, jewelers and many more people that still took pride in their work.
As the shopping experience on Sundays grew, inevitably tourists started finding out about it. Learning that it was a good place to come to get authentic Argentine handcrafts at a bargain basement price, the men came with their black knee-high socks and behind them were their wives in matching straw hats and straw shopping bags.
When the peddlers whose only product is Buenos Aires itself saw how popular the San Telmo shopping had become, they started to first offer it as a stop on their overpriced tours and before long it was a featured stop for any American who had never traveled further from home than the WalMart down the road.
Slowly over time, the real craftsman left. In their place stepped up merchants who had imported their plastic baubles and fake leather whips and tarnished mass-produced silver.
A stroll through San Telmo today is just like fighting the Christmas sale at the dollar general in Anytown, USA. You’ll find plenty of cheap stuff there, but it won’t be genuine.
As the peddlers of plastic moved in and the real craftsman moved out, and had to find somewhere else to go.
Their destination needs to be your destination.
In the leafy barrio of Belgrano, an easy ride down Subte Linea D, sits Retondo. Across the street, 11 Septembre, is a park where you can still find authentic Argentines selling authentic works of glass, metal, wood and just about any other material known to man.
Scattered throughout the park are several artists who, for 25 pesos will draw a caricature of you or read your fortune,
With the crowds of the gullible and ill informed still streaming into San Telmo, the park in Belgrano is a pleasant, uncrowded place to spend a few hours wandering through the shops, stands and stalls. When you visit, make sure to haggle over the prices. But don’t haggle for profit, haggle for fun.
It’s affordable and you won’t take home another cheap, genuine “Made in China” piece of Argentine craftsmanship.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist from America. His latest book of photography, Suenitos tells the story of the only daycare inside the dangerous Hidden City. Now based in Argentina, he continues to turn his lens on social justice issues around the globe. Connect with Jerry on MosaicHub, Facebook or LinkedIn today. Follow this link to read more of his work on Huffington Post and Examiner. Have a story that needs to reach national media? Email him today.
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