Buenos Aires – a city so good they founded it twice. Both times, it was founded by Spanish explorers, most recently in 1580, and first time around in 1536 – but the remains were never discovered of the first settlement.
That is, not until 1985 when an Argentine private company purchased a 19th century property now known as El Zanjon in San Telmo and accidentally uncovered what is now considered to be the most important archaeological site of the city. Lying hidden beneath the building lay the tunnels of the old city that had covered one of the two creeks which can be seen in the old city maps that survived.
After twenty years of excavation and restoration, El Zanjon and its neighbour Casa Mínima are now open to the public in the form of guided tours and special events, and you are invited to relive the history of Buenos Aires through the stories that that have been played out in these buildings, over the last 465 years.
El Zanjon lies hidden in the heart of the city’s oldest barrio, San Telmo. In the 19th century San Telmo was home to the wealthiest porteños, but many of the houses fell into ruin after its residents fled the area, perhaps never to return, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. This house was divided into tenements over the years and eventually the building declined into such a poor state that it became derelict.
Now, after 20 years of meticulously excavating, restoring and converting the building, the owners have proudly opened the doors to the public.
Tours begin in the light and airy foyer where the guide explains the history of the area before leading you down to the tunnels of El Zanjon where you can also see the old foundations, walls, floors and water wells all built and some destroyed between 1730 and 1865. The images that the guide conjures up with her tales of the city in the olden days are helpfully portrayed in beautifully displayed paintings and maps of the old Buenos Aires, or Buenos Ayres as it was known back then. The standard of the restoration is very impressive and no expense has been spared in the quest to preserve this important piece of history. If you get the chance to visit in the next few months, you can also view a section of the tunnels which is in the process of being renovated and it makes an interesting comparison with the trendy exposed brickwork of the restored area.