Manzana is an old name for a city block (as well as modern Spanish for an apple), and the name "las Luces" refers to this area being the intellectual center, or "light," of the city in the 17th and 18th centuries. This land was granted in 1616 to the Jesuits, who built San Ignacio -- the city's oldest church -- still standing at the corner of calles Bolívar and Alsina. San Ignacio has a beautiful altar carved in wood with baroque details. It was renovated in 2007 after years of neglect, and it was also nearly destroyed in the revolution that took Perón out of power in 1955 when he sought to reduce the power of the Catholic Church. Also located here is the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (National High School of Buenos Aires). Argentina's best-known intellectuals have gathered and studied here, and the name "block of lights" honors the school's graduates and their work in achieving Argentina's independence in the 19th century.
Tours in English are usually led on Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 4:30pm and include a visit to the Jesuits' system of underground tunnels, which connected their churches to strategic spots in the city (admission $2/£1.40). Speculation remains as to whether the tunnels also served a military purpose or funneled pirated goods into the city when it was a smuggling center in the colonial period. The full extent of the tunnels is still unknown and various military dictators, including Perón, added to them in case they needed to flee the nearby Casa Rosada in the event of unexpected coups (which he did, escaping to Paraguay). Ratearse, the Argentine slang for playing hooky, which literally means becoming a rat, comes from the tunnels, as this is where students from the Colegio hid when they didn't want to go to class. In addition to weekend tours, the Comisión Nacional de la Manzana de las Luces organizes a variety of cultural activities, including folkloric dance lessons, open-air theater performances, art expositions, and music concerts.
- © Frommer's 2013
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