Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Foto Ruta, Not Your Everyday City Tour, Or: Why Buenos Aires Just Might Be the Best City in the World

Perched over an abandoned Ford Falcon on a side street in Villa Crespa, I shoot a close-up photo of the drifts of dried Tipo tree blossoms that have fallen onto the car’s cracked windshield. I’m trying to remember the rules of composition, colour, form and texture that Foto Ruta’s short workshop covered before my group set out for a Buenos Aires photo tour unlike any other.

BA’s rich and troubled history, incredible restaurant and nightlight scene and stunning architecture has created an ambiance that rivals that of New York, Madrid or Paris. A taxi driver told me that Porteños are Italians who speak Spanish and live like the French. The city an undeniable flair, but it can also be challenging to get to know. As with other fantastic metropolises, the best barrios lie outside the tourist track and can’t easily be distinguished by visitors. Stick to the guide books and you’ll find yourself in Micro Centro, staring up at the Obalisco, or traipsing the narrow cobblestone streets of La Boca. Though they may be necessary elements, they don’t give a sense of how and where most Porteños live their lives.

Enter Foto-Ruta, operated by ex-pats Jocelyn Mandrake and Becky Hayes. This afternoon tour provides a superb guiding force, sharing the best places for parilla, the best street for leather goods and the most interesting places to photograph the city’s fabulous graffiti art. Billed as an “urban photo experience” for both Porteños and travellers alike, Foto-Ruta is a low-fi tour for anyone with a camera and an eye for metaphor.

The tour itself operates like a treasure hunt. The photo I take of the Ford Falcon becomes our group’s response to Foto Ruta’s first of ten ‘clues,’ which serve as prompts for images we are to create during our two hour trek around the neighbourhood. Clues such as “Zen and the art of cocktails” and “Mi casa NO es su casa” are deliberately vague, giving the participants greater latitude for artistic response.

Thanks to Foto-Ruta’s clues, things I first loved about this charmed city—the cobblestone streets, bouganvilla draping a wall, the leafy interiors of courtyards—faded into the background, and smaller things took on a new shine. In an attempt to interpret each clue, the twisted roots of a palm caught my eye (All tied up); the open butterfly shape of a streetside barbeque’d chorizo (It has wings); or the brilliant rust and yellow paint of a garage door (Sugar and spice). “It can be hard to wander the streets here and take shots that haven’t already been done a million times,” said Mandryk from her ultra-modern apartment in the relaxed barrio of Belgrano. “By providing clues, we hope people will look at the city with a new eye. And by encouraging participants to work in groups, there’s a lot of support if you need to take time for a shot.”

Later, back in the café, we sip wine and nibble while going through each group’s selected images. The result? A sheaf of photos that people back home will actually want to look at. We all agreed that the day’s work is more beautiful than most of our shots taken so far, in San Telmo’s sprawling market or the Casa Rosada. We’d slowed down, we’d had time to really see where we were; it was an instantaneous and magical way of participating in the minutia of this often forgotten but thriving corner of the world.

Together Mandryk and Hayes are putting BA on the map; their company has only been in operation for two months and already it’s received press from the Guardian and the New York Times. Participation costs $100 pesos (about $25 US) and includes the lesson, tour and wine during the photo show. Mandryk also holds small group multi-day photo tours through her adjacent company, Fuera Foto, including five day all-inclusive tours of both Buenos Aires and Habana, Cuba. For more information, visit or

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

It is true that the best and nicest barrios in the city are not precisely the tourist ones. That is why I always think that if you want to get to know a country in a deep way you need to ask people, talk to locals and forget about books like Lonely Planet. I stayed in buenos aires apartments instead of hotels and that is already a big change of point of view. Now that you are immersed in a local building with local neighbour, we can talk. Try it, the difference is huge!