San Telmo is to Buenos Aires what Covent Garden is to London. Certainly, the similarities are less than subtle – the gilded live entertainers, the tapering, cobbled streets and the abundance of handicrafts, jewellery stalls and bric-a-brac (or clutter as Pumpkin refers to it). And yet, the San Telmo flea market, which many boast to be the only place to be in Buenos Aires on a Sunday, has a vibrancy and pulse very much unparalleled to most markets I had encountered before.
There is an interesting bit of history behind the cobblestone floors that my flip flops were struggling with. Many years ago, when ships were importing produce into Buenos Aires, stones were added to the cargo to weigh it down further but upon arrival, these same stones were dumped in San Telmo and were to form the foundations of the charming narrow streets still seen in this area.
To begin your market marathon, make your way to Plaza del Mayo. Once there, you could have an inbuilt GPS as hopeless as mine and you would still need no navigation, as the enthused crowds lead you down Defensa and into Plaza Dorrego along narrow pedestrianised streets, packed to the brim with traders and colourful stalls.A huge array of items are available for sale, from the more mundane clothes and shoes to the more unique items, such as jewellery made entirely from leather, flattened glass bottles that have been turned into wall ornaments and clocks and an entire stall of handmade kaleidoscopes. I was able to walk past the arts and crafts with nought but a glimpse, I was even able to walk away from the 1kg jar of fresh Dulce de Leche sauce (perhaps only because I had just eaten a crepe stuffed with it) but I really could not be dragged away from the kaleidoscopes.
I have always been known to be the last one on the ladder when it comes to technology. For years, I resisted a mobile phone, then a digital camera, then the MP3 player. It’s not a dislike for technology per se but rather a contentedness for simple things. This is one of the reasons why I always loved kaleidoscopes, both as a child and now as an adult. Spirals of shape, shades and mirrors seep together into an explosive chiasm, evolving and emerging with each rotation like a chameleon on a ferris wheel. And so, after some persuading Pumpkin that these are not in fact just for children, we overlooked its above average price tag to buy my one and only souvenir from the trip (Dulce de Leche excluded).
We had read numerous reviews about this market being a goldmine for pickpockets and were apprehensive about whether to carry cameras and cash. But with a little bit of common sense and a lot of vigilance, we were okay and managed to take all the pictures we wanted. There are lots of tourists interspersed between locals and aside from the obvious tips of not keeping wallets in back pockets and keeping your handbag strapped across you at all times, we spotted many men carrying rucksacks on their front.
We spent about 3 hours at this market, which was about as valiant an effort as we could manage having stepped off the plane just a few hours earlier but didn’t leave without indulging in some local street foods and my first dose of Dulce de Leche to set me up for the rest of the trip!