Published on March 14th, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut
How to Tour Argentina Like Pope Francis (Almost)
He’s the first Jesuit priest to become pope. He’s the first Latin American to become pope. And Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — now known as Pope Francis — just might serve as a good excuse to plan a trip to some of Argentina’s historic religious sites.
Here are a few ideas to get you on the papal trail in Argentina (no Popemobile required).
Buenos Aires Travel
Pope Francis was born in Argentina’s largest city, and studied at a seminary in a neighborhood called Villa Devoto. Later, Bergoglio obtained a licentiate in philosophy from the Colegio Máximo San José in San Miguel, and taught at Colegio del Salvador, a Jesuit university. From 1998 until this year, he served as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
What to see: The imposing Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral) sits next to Plaza de Mayo. Rebuilt several times since its debut in the 16th century, it has an interesting mix of architectural styles (it almost looks like a grand bank or government building from the outside), and is a popular tourist site because it contains the mausoleum of General José de San Martín, a national hero.
Also on Buenos Aires’s religious history trail is the Iglesia de San Ignacio, a Catholic church in the Montserrat district. The oldest church in the city, it was constructed by Jesuits in 1675, and is the most prominent historic landmark on the “Manzana de las Luces” (Illuminated Block).
How to visit: The best-organized visit I’ve ever had in Buenos Aires was through Borello Travel & Tours, a tour operator and travel agency that’s based in New York City and Buenos Aires, with a variety of travel packages that include tours of the city.
Where to stay: Design Suites Buenos Aires offers contemporary style and a central location at reasonable prices, while the InterContinental Buenos Aires is a handsomely furnished, full-service, traditional luxury hotel. For a trendy, stylish retreat, check into Faena Hotel + Universe, which sometimes attracts rock stars and other celebrities (though not the pope, as far as I know).
After finishing his doctoral dissertation in Germany, Pope Francis returned to Argentina to serve as confessor and spiritual director at the Jesuit church in Córdoba. Considering the fact that Jesuits founded Argentina’s first university, the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, in 1622, it’s no surprise that this is a destination rich in Jesuit history.
What to see: Viejo Córdoba, the original city center, is an easily walkable neighborhood with several pedestrian-only streets. Top attractions here include Plaza San Martin, the city square bordered by the Cabildo and the towering Catedral de Córdoba (also known as Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Our Lady of the Assumption), a cathedral begun in 1577 that took two centuries to finish and is the oldest church in continuous service in Argentina.
The most-celebrated stop on the tourist trail in Córdoba is the Manzana Jesuítica, known in English as the Jesuit Block. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, this group of 17th-century buildings is a landmark for religious, educational and cultural reasons. It’s hard not to be impressed by the fine architectural details of the church and chapel, the national university and the Monserrat secondary school. Also fascinating — and just a few blocks away — are the long-forgotten, subterranean Jesuit crypts, which, since being rediscovered in 1989 beneath a bustling commercial street, have been partially restored and opened to the public.
In centuries past, the Jesuits built six large estancias in the countryside outside the city, selling produce from orchards, farms and vineyards to pay for their religious and educational projects. Today, five of those estancias are open to the public. One of the best places to learn more about this is Alta Gracia, a small city founded in the 17th century as a Jesuit hacienda. Guided tours are available of restored religious structures, which sit along El Tajamar, a lovely artificial lake built as a reservoir by the Jesuits in 1643.
Travelers with more time can check out the other historic Jesuit estancias that dot the countryside. Caroya, the oldest, dates to 1616; the well-preserved Jesus Maria is home to an quaintly beautiful 17th-century church; Santa Catalina boasts impressive baroque style; and La Candelaria, the most remote, has stunning scenery.
How to visit: I used Metropolitan Touring, a tour operator that has offices in several major destinations in Latin America, and offers an array of group and customized individual tour programs in Córdoba and elsewhere in Argentina.
Where to stay: The Holiday Inn Córdoba is just outside of downtown Córdoba and has amenities including an outdoor swimming pool and business center; the fact that it’s outside downtown makes for faster escapes to the beautiful countryside. Travelers looking for a boutique experience inside the city should consider Azur Real, a 14-room property set in a former home built in 1915; it’s appeared on the Conde Nast Traveller Hot List. For country-based luxury, head to El Colibrí, a member of the upscale Relais & Chateaux group; located in the town of Santa Catalina, it’s a working ranch with elegant public spaces, spacious guest rooms and the opportunity to participate in traditional estancia life — almost like a Jesuit priest, perhaps.