A Visit to La Plata

A Grand Day Out: A Visit to La Plata

Argentina’s first planned city  (and the first of South America?) was created to give Buenos Aires Province a capital once the city of Buenos Aires became the Federal Capital in 1880.  Two years later Governor Dardo Rocha founded the new city, laidout on a 5km square grid, with numerous avenues intersecting the grid, along the lines of Paris and Washington DC.  (Unfortunately, as virtually all streets are numbered, the first-time visitor may be disoriented by this rationalist design - study the map with care first, or take a taxi!)

The city’s principal attractions are its cathedral, its music center - the Teatro Argentino - and Dardo Rocha Cultural Center, and the Natural History Museum and Observatory in the Paseo del Bosque.  The Museum, even though a bit down at the heels, is among the great science museums of the world, and itself alone is worth a visit to La Plata.  Dotted about the city are some attractive government buildings, along with the only Le Corbusier building in all of Latin America.  

Construction of the Neo-Gothic Cathedral on Plaza Moreno began in 1884, under the direction of French-born architect Pedro Benoit; it took over a century, with the towers only completed in 1999.  A museum in the crypt traces the history of the construction.  An elevator whisks you to the top of one of the towers - a splendid place for photographs.  Afterwards, enjoy a coffee in the bar (surely this is the only cathedral in the world with incorporated bar!).  Across the plaza is the city hall, built by a German architect, and described by some as very reminiscent of the Amsterdam central train station.

Nearby, in Plaza San Martin, are the province’s government house, the equivalent of the Casa Rosada in a neo-Flemish style, and the legislative building.  Flanking them is the former train station, now a cultural center housing the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Latinoamericano.  The center, named the Pasaje Dardo Rocha after the city founder, also houses a cafe.  Avenidas 51 and 53 connect these two squares; mid-way, between Calles 11 and10, is the Teatro Argentino.  The current building, a monolithic concrete structure that replaced the ornate original after a fire thirty years ago, is the home for La Plata’s opera and concert seasons. 

From Plaza San Martin Avenida 53 leads out to the city’s big park, the Paseo del Bosque, which was formerly part of the estancia Martín Iraola.  On the way, you pass the Le Corbusier house to one side, at Boulevard 53 ??.  The building, appropriately enough, is the seat of the provincial architectures’ association.  The park holds a zoo, which is over a century old, and within that a botanical garden.  There’s a small lake on which you can paddle about in a rented boat, in front of an open-air theatre.  And there is the great Museum.  

The Museum, along with the observatory and the cathedral, was founded on the principle that no great city came to be such without those three things.  Its construction took place between 1884 and 1888 - and as this was before the era of electric light, the design, by a German and a Swedish architect, was intended to maximize natural light.  Glass ceilings everywhere flood the rooms with light.  The first director, famed naturalist Perito Moreno (who donated much of the initial collection), considered the layout of the twenty-three rooms as a spiral that would lead the visitor from the geology of the earth until the development of the (pre-Conquest) societies in Latin America.  The collections are huge - only about one percent are on display.  Turning right from the entrance hall, which is embellished with paintings of animals of the country, some now-extinct.  You enter the room of rocks and minerals, including a display from the petrified forest of Santa Cruz.   This is followed by rooms of dinosaur reproductions, including some of the largest on record, such as the diplodocus, a gift from Andrew Carnegie in the early years of the Museum (and a tribute to its importance). Don’t miss the fossil spider from San Luis, measuring in at half a meter, and 290 million years old!  The Cenozoic room is the most imporatant for autoctonous animals, the megafauna, including gliptodones, huge predecessors of today’s armadillos.  (You can see part of one in the Juramento Subte station, unearthed in the digging of the tunnels.)  These creatures evolved while South America was essentially an island continent; once the Panamanian Isthmus surfaced, new predators arrived - eventually including humans - and these lumbering beasts died out, leaving few descendants.  There is a wonderful display of a prehistoric bird, the granddaddy of the condor, that measured nine meters in wing span, and just missed overlapping with humans - it would surely have been able to carry off quite a few of the smaller specimens.  

Upstairs are the various archeology rooms, including the only collection of Egyptian artefacts on the continent.  There is a fine collection of Peruvian ceramics, followed by Argentine materials, largely from the Northwest.  The outstanding element here is the suplicantes, a group of sculptures from the Condorhausi culture nearly 2000 years ago, which could quite easily pass for 20th century work.  Their name derives from their posture, as if beseeching the heavens; while there are guesses their purpose is unknown.  Excellent copies of these fascinating works are available at the small museum shop - look closely, they’re behind the counter.  One of the most striking was found only 30 years ago in a garden in a small town in Catamarca - dug up because the rock was interfering with the planting - and saved when the daugher of the house, a student at the Museum recognized the importance of the object!  

The museum also has a collection of 34 Gauraní artworks from the Misiones area, carvings and other works done for the Jesuit establishments there, the most extensive collection in the country.  They were gathered by the initiative of Perito Moreno, who sent a specialist to southern Misiones at the turn of the century - long before the ruins of the reducciones were recognized as valuable and preservation works begun.  In its lower levels are extensive scientific collections, laboratories, and offices.  (A note for the visitor - the exhibit rooms are not heated or cooled; in the summer the natural cooling properties of the building make it quite pleasant to visit, but in the winter, be prepared!)

Behind the museum is the wonderful astronomical observatory, with its centennial library.  In the grounds is a fine new museum of astronomical instruments.

Guided walking tours, Tues to Sun at 10 am and 1430, from the Dardo Rocha Museum on Plaza Moreno, Calle 50 no 933, between Calles 13 and 14.  (0221) 4216722.  

Museo de Ciencias Naturales.  Open Daily, except Christmas, New Year’s and May Day.

Zoo and Botanical Gardens  open 9 am -6 pm Tues to Sun (7 pm in summer) Various guided tours available..(from the BA-LP motorway take Avenida Centenario at the Gutierrez circle, at Calle 7 turn left, go six blocks to Calle 1, turn right, drive to Calle 52...turn left at the crossing with Paseo del Bosque, and the first left after that is the entrance.

Platea 10.  Confiteria and restaurant at the corner with the Teatro Argentino.  51/10/  reservations 489-4442.  

Don Quijote restaurant.  Plaza Passo 146.  Excellent pasta and grill.  

Teatro Argentino.  (0221) 429-1732/3 ticket office, Tues to Sun 10-20 hrs, or 30 minutes after the beginning of a performance.  Information 0800 666 5151, or (0221) 429-1741.  www.teatroargentino.org.  Calle 51, between 9 & 10.

Getting there.  Expresso laPlata.  From Buenos Aires, Cerrito 778, tel 4371-8934.  In La Plata, at Plaza Italia #105, (0221) 489-4771.  P/U at the cathedral, 424-6565.

If you don’t want to make a day trip, La Plata Hotel, Calle 51 between 10 and 11, centrally located for the theater and other attractions, (0221) 422-9090, www.weblaplatahotel.com.ar; or Corregidor, Calle 6 #1026.  425-6800.  

Excursion within an excursion - the Parque Provincial Pereyra Iraola, 487-0221, on PRs 14 and 1, includes a Wild Animal section, or open-air zoo, where visitors can drive in their own vehicles to see various indigenous and foreign animal species - enter on Camino Centenario, km 16.2..  487-0920.  This was the first of its kind in South America.  The park was designed by Belgian landscape artist Karl Vereecke, on 600 hectares of land that previously belonged to the estancias Santa Rosa of the Iraola family, and estancia San Juan.  The main Santa Rosa building is now the HQ for the park.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.