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History Hidden Beneath the Surface in Buenos Aires

 

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What lies beneath the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina? A tour at Zanjón de Granados, a private museum, provides visitors with an exploration into the remnants of the underground city below the surface. Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
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Underneath Buenos Aires, remnants of an even older city remain. Visitors can venture underground to visit the ruins and see the capital from an archaeological perspective.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — The city of Buenos Aires is full of history. Just by traveling to the Plaza de Mayo, the capital city’s main square, you can see buildings that date to colonial times, such as the Buenos Aires Cabildo, built by order of the Spanish crown in 1751.

But to know more about the city’s roots, you have to go underground – literally – and explore the Buenos Aires beneath Buenos Aires.

Begin your exploration with an archaeological visit to the sites found under the city at Zanjón de Granados, a private museum near the Río Darsena Sur, where you can walk around a series of renovated tunnels and sewers dating back to the 1730s.

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Upon entering Zanjón de Granados, visitors walk the restored hallways of a mansion that dates back to 1800s.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Here you will find remnants of an earlier time, including an old riverbed that was sectioned off around 1780 by the families that lived there. You will also find a well, a reservoir, and even the remnants of a house from 1732.

“Houses were built like layers on a cake, construction was done on top of old things,” explains Matilde Pascual, a tour guide at Zanjón de Granados.

The tunnel was discovered by chance in 1985. The current owner of the museum had bought the property in ruins with the intention of opening a business, but during renovations the floor collapsed and the remains of ancient buildings were discovered, says Enrique Salmoiraghi, museologist at Zanjón de Granados.

The tunnel, where the Tercero del Sur, a river, once flowed, was built by the city’s residents to keep the river water at bay, as waste from a slaughterhouse flowed through the channel.

Upon seeing that the type of construction varied throughout the tunnel, museum researchers came to the conclusion that the tunnel had been built in sections by different people.

“In one part the ceiling is vaulted with arches and in the next it is straight. Maybe whoever built that section didn’t know how to make an arch,” Pascual says, adding that, after the discovery, the digging of the tunnel continued for more than 200 meters (656 feet). Visitors can now walk into it and look at the original ceiling.

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The tunnels, where the river Tercero del Sur once flowed, were partially restored by the museum. In some areas, concrete columns were erected in order to support the structure of the tunnel, and walls were restored, but the original ceiling is still intact.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

“What I like the most about the visits is to be able to tell the stories,” Pascual says. “What gives life to those bricks is the history of the people who lived there and the saga of this man who bought a house for a business and ended up opening a museum.”

The museum is the perfect excuse to tell the stories of the people who lived in that space for over 400 years, including a wealthy Spanish family from the 1800s. “The family of five had six slaves and its own system of gutters and reservoirs to collect and store rainwater. Inside the reservoirs were turtles that ate the algae from the walls and kept it clean,” says Pascual, as museum visitors peer inside the structure.

Their residence was later transformed to a 1900s conventillo – a type of tenement house where rooms were individually rented, while common spaces like the kitchen and bathroom were shared.

“The family sold the house shortly before the implosion of yellow fever and the house then became a market and conventillo,” Pascual says. “There are still traces of paint from that time on the walls of what were bedrooms.”

It is commonly believed that the paint in the residents’ bedrooms of the conventillo was left over from the ships where they worked. According to Pascual, this idea is based on the walls’ bright colors and the expensive cost of the paint compared to the income of the tenants – many of whom worked as day laborers at the port.

The site also displays the remnants of pipes, utensils, dolls and other objects, alongside reproductions of paintings, documents and letters that speak of the city’s past.

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During the excavation process of Zanjón de Granados, a number of items were discovered.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

“It’s amazing that this is preserved in Buenos Aires,” says Silvia Soave, an Argentinian tourist. “It’s the first time that I visit such ancient tunnels, everything is very well restored.”

The ancient Zanjón tunnels aren’t the only ones running beneath the city. There are also the Jesuit tunnels, Manzana de las Luces, or Blocks of Light, built around the same time as the Zanjón tunnels. Manzana de las Luces tunnels were used to connect important points in the city, such as the port, hospitals, fort and church.

These passageways weren’t built with brick like the ones in Zanjón but, rather, carved directly into the earth. They are now under repair and closed to the public, but will be open again at a future date.

Go underground in Buenos Aires
Zanjón de Granados offers guided tours in Spanish and English. The museum is located at Defensa 755, between San Lorenzo and Av. Independencia. For more information visit their website, http://www.elzanjon.com.ar/

Manzana de las Luces is located at Perú 272, between Adolfo Alsina and Moreno. For more information about the tunnels, and to find out when the site will reopen to the public, monitor their Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/manzanadelasluces/

Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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