Tours promise a degree of truth about Argentina's past

Jon Marcus meets the scholarly guides tearing up the Tim Rice lyrics to uncover the real Buenos Aires

November 24, 2011



Credit: Alamy

Changing times: the presidential palace on the Plaza de Mayo is one of the landmarks Eternautus discusses on its historical tours


Analia Weiss stands on the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires and points out, for a visitor, the landmarks surrounding what may be the most historic spot in Argentina.

As tourists flit about in the warm South American spring, taking pictures of the balcony where Eva Peron purportedly told Argentina not to cry for her, Ms Weiss is explaining, with unusual authority, how the architecture of the buildings bordering the square reflects the political mood in the country at the time that they were built.

Later she will tell her driver to pull over beneath an underpass where Argentines were held and tortured during the country’s so-called Dirty War.

And before the day is through, she will make sure to point out - while standing at the late first lady’s crypt in the Cementerio de la Recoleta - that, despite what most tourists like to think, Evita’s “don’t cry for me” line was made up by the lyricist Tim Rice.

It is not your typical city tour. But Buenos Aires, with its complicated history, is not your typical city. And Ms Weiss is not your typical guide. In fact, she is a graduate student in history at the University of Buenos Aires who, as a sideline, works for what its founders say is the world’s only tour company run by students and academics.

Called Eternautas, after a time traveller from a popular Argentine comic strip, the company was founded out of expediency in 1998, when history students needed to find a way to pay their rent in the face of an economic crisis that forced cuts in education grants.

But also, said co-founder Ricardo Watson, “we were seduced by the idea of talking about urban history in the streets and not just in the classroom, and explaining the complex history of the city and its inhabitants, but in non-academic language”.

This is not the simple task one might suppose: Ms Weiss and her fellow guides spend much of their time separating fact from fiction, dealing with the mass of Buenos Aires mythology about, for instance, the Peróns.

“History is complex and intricate by nature,” Mr Watson said. “Buenos Aires had it all: money, millions of European immigrants, wealth, stability, a cosmopolitan look, the greatest middle class of Latin America, welfare policies, industry.

“André Malraux [the French author, adventurer and politician] said this city was the capital of an imaginary empire. It’s not easy to understand why or how we lost almost everything during the last 50 years and we’re still on the run.”

But while Argentines may be chasing the country’s history in some spheres, the nation’s economy has rebounded impressively.

Buenos Aires is full of visitors, drawn by its reputation as the Paris of South America and its new pre-eminence in fashion and cuisine. And like other tourist services, Eternautas is thriving beyond its founders’ expectations.

It offers multilingual tours on varying themes to groups of from two to 25 people, and can get away with charging steep rates, by local standards.

In addition to their university studies, its guides - who come from not only the departments of history and architecture but also art, sociology, literature and other fields - receive continual training.

There is a classroom for this purpose in the company’s administrative offices, up a rickety elevator in a building near the Plaza de Mayo.

Back outside, Ms Weiss is pointing out the designs on the plaza. They depict the white shawls of the mothers of the desaparecidos, or “the disappeared” who vanished without trace under the rule of the military junta from 1976 to 1983, and who still hold weekly rallies here.

“In three hours,” she said, “we can show you what Buenos Aires is all about.”

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