Buenos Aires, you could be Beautiful

Buenos Aires, you could be Beautiful

The Angel of La Recoleta, buenos aires, argetina

The Angel of La Recoleta

The first time I walked the streets of Buenos Aires I tried to marvel at the architecture and stonework of the colonial buildings.  I tried to get excited when I hopped of the bus at the entrance to La Boca.  And I tried to smile like a kid in a candy store when I wandered down the streets that hold thousands of stories, and a history richer than dulce de leche.  But I couldn’t, I was too distracted.

As a travel writer it is easy to gloss over the negatives and relate the world to your readers through happy rose coloured glasses, but in many cases that’s just not fair.  Buenos Aires has a problem, one of the most primitive in nature: garbage.  As I walked to the ritzy neighbourhood of Palermo, I dodged and weaved through piles of garbage gathered by hoards of boys obviously paid by the city to remove it.  If my nostrils could do the same dodging my feet had they would have saved themselves the wretched punch of rotting food and decaying wet paper.  I try my best not to be discouraged about piles of debris as I pedaled through and fought to enjoy the moment, but as another plastic bag finds refuge on the sole of my sneaker and I can’t.

Argentinean Soldier

Argentinean Soldier

Don’t get me wrong, I love Buenos Aires, and Argentina in general.  For me it has everything a great city could have.  It has great food, a moving night scene, and a rich history.  The rhythm of life, of this city that I’ve now been to on three separate times, is perfectly suited to me.  I love that friends find time to gather for an asado (BBQ) and beer.  I love that every night people simply sit back and enjoy each other’s company.  Who needs television?  But for such a great city, one of such a proud people, I can’t for the life of me understand the garbage.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in Argentina knows that the Argentineans may be the most proud people in the world.  They are more European than Europe, they have the best footballers, the most beautiful women, the best dressed men, and the greatest steaks in the world.  So for a people so proud of themselves, how can one open their car window and empty a plastic bag full of garbage onto the street in good conscience?   I actually remember one time when I was 17 years old driving around in my car eating McDonalds.  I looked at my garbage filled car and decided I didn’t want to add to it.  So I drove to a street I knew no one would be, and I tossed it out the window.  After making a loop around the block, I felt so ashamed I went back and picked it up.

Spider web on statue, La recoleta, buenos aires, argetina

Spider web on statue

I understand that there is a social difference, mostly in regards to environmental education, between Canada and Argentina, but it still shocks me to see.  A child was walking with one hand in his mothers and the other on a chocolate bar wrapper, as I walked by I noticed the kid drop the paper (although I didn’t realize it was garbage yet).  I stopped the mom and said “excuse me, your son dropped a piece of paper.”  She quickly looked back and said “es basura (it’s garbage).” In confusion, I looked at her picked it up, and said “si es basura porque no se pone en la basuero? (If it’s garbage, why don’t you put it in the garbage bin?)” and walked over to the garbage myself and put it in.

You see, for me, part of the problem is the lack of shame felt in tossing out garbage.  In Canada, I would never toss garbage to the street, not because I am environmentally conscious, but because if I did it someone would say something in front of everyone and embarrass me.  Dear Buenos Aires, start to feel a little bit embarrassed by this mess, you could be beautiful.

Buenos Aires has the potential to be one of the greatest cities in the world.  I swells with a tradition and culture which has found its own mark somewhere in between Europe and Latin America.  It is featured by beautiful neighbourhoods such as La Boca, Palermo, and Puerto Madero.  And more than anything it is home to some of the proudest people in the entire world.  The depth of this city’s culture is waist deep, but unfortunately, so too are the streets with garbage.

La Boca, buenos aires, argetina

La Boca Court Panoramic

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. I have had this conversation slash rant with my friends here so many times. It truly is the lack of guilt and accountability. It’s the same think with picking up dog poop. No one cares. I hate cleaning up after my dog, but I hate stepping in dog crap a lot more. A few times I found myself without a bag and I felt so guilty- twice I went back with a bag to clean it up. I am the same with litter. However, like you said, Argentines don’t really seem to feel guilt for tossing their trash on the ground when they are 2 steps from a trash can.

    So, in a not so short response, I agree, 100%.

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  2. I think we need to raise awareness about this issue. I love that you told that woman off but, unfortunately, it’s a losing battle. Something needs to change.
    Oh, yes, and don’t forget dog poop.

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  3. I found the same situation in Saigon where throwing trash on the ground, into the street was the norm…but I couldn’t get used it.

    Have fun at Iguazzu Falls, maybe our paths will cross in Argentina yet!

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  4. This is oh so true, but it’s not universal. I actually have some Argentine friends who have told me they were taught it isn’t right to throw garbage on the street, and who complain along with me when they see it happen, though the situation on the streets certainly suggests they’re in the minority. It’s not a losing battle, it’s just a long, slow fight: believe it or not, the dog poop situation has actually improved in the nearly four years I’ve lived here. In 2007 I was downright shocked if I saw someone pick up after their dog, ever, and now I probably see at least one person a day doing it. They’ve had some hilarious public-service-type ads recently that basically say, “No, stepping in it *isn’t* good luck. Pick up after your dog.” I think that over time they are starting to get the message, and I do think it’s worth fighting the battle and making people self-conscious about it so that, one day, they will change their tune.

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  5. How disappointing to hear! It must definitely be a cultural thing. We have the same sort of problem here in Africa, although I think it’s slowly getting better in the major cities as awareness is raised.

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  6. Great post! Love the fact that indeed that you’re also showing a dark/bad side of BsAs instead of only telling the good stuff *where I’ve been was spectacular and amazing and you cannot miss out on this*.

    Concerning the garbage: I’ve noticed that in many less developed countries in Asia this is the case as well. Maybe this is even to be expected: awareness is not high on their Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For good reason. But BsAs is a city with a high standard of living.

    In Buenos Aires I noticed that -at night – homeless or poor people collect the cargage from the streets. Probably to make money for recycling. Have you seen that and do you know if that could have something to do with it?

    Happy Traveling!

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    • Hey Ellen, the thing about BsAs’ garbage is that you don’t really see it anywhere else in Argentina. Just in BA. And yes the poor people collect the garbage for two reasons. One, because the government pays them to. And two, because they can take the garbage into recycling/waste centers for small gains.

      I think one of the ways they could fix the problem is have a week or two weeks where no garbage is collected from the streets. This would cause such disgust that people would likely form some sort of fix.

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  7. Its a shame about the garbage. I guess all things rise and fall on leadership. if its not encouraged from the top level down, it is futile coming from low level up.

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  8. Great article, this is the first time I have heard about this malady. I definitely think the apathy would bother me more than the physical garbage. Anyway, thanks for the heads up to look down!

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  9. Nice perspective on a great city…I guess it’ll take some civic pride and a new politican to fix this problem.
    Thanks for posting.

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  10. It is shocking to us in North America, as this isn’t our cultural norm. I think the perspective of the culture has to shift before anything will change. They need their own version of the Crying Indian commercial that hit the United States in the 1970s. Google it!

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  11. It’s not just in B.A. I remember driving across the most desolate landscapes in Patagonia, where the only sign of life were plastic bags tumbling along in the winds. Countless plastic bags – I remember thinking this must be where they all end up, blown to the bottom of the continent and then off into the sea. In a land of such breathtaking openness and beauty, it was the last thing I expected to see, more plentiful there than any living creatures. Plastic bags. Every time I’m asked at the grocery store “paper or plastic?”, my mind remembers those wild plastic bags of Patagonia. I re-use canvas bags for everything now.

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  12. I’ve noticed a similar situation throughout much of Latin America. Here in Mexico City it’s also a big problem. I often hear people complain but of course no one says anything when they see it happen, and many of them are the ones throwing trash to begin with. I could never understand why that was – just another cultural norm I suppose. Either way, it’s definitely unattractive. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve become kind of used to it. The last time I was home I remember being almost surprised at how clean everything was. 😉

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    • Today on a bus in Asuncion someone passed a piece of garbage to someone else to throw out the window. I stopped them and said, if we keep throwing “miedra” out the window soon we’ll be walking in “miedra” up to our knees. I took the garbage and put it in my pocket for a bin later, sometimes we need to step in. I am used to seeing it, but I will never get used to it.

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  13. ‘I would never toss garbage to the street, not because I am environmentally conscious but because if I did it someone would say something in front of everyone and embarrass me.’.. Seriously? I can’t believe I’ve just read that! I’m appalled. If we were all ‘environmentally conscious’ then we wouldn’t be on the precipice of absolute environmental destruction. Yet you flagrantly proclaim that your considerations when littering don’t include the environment but your EGO.
    That alongside 103489348 different things is why I grossly despair for this embarrassing species.
    Brendan it seems like you’re in urgent need of evaluating what is of VALUE in this world and then ascertaining how YOUR actions impact on that. Please do so quickly, for the sake of the planet and her beings!

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