The Story Behind How Buenos Aires Got Its Name

Buenos Aires, Argentina | © Jesus Alexander Reyes Sánchez/Flickr
Buenos Aires, Argentina | © Jesus Alexander Reyes Sánchez/Flickr
Photo of Sorcha O'Higgins
29 November 2017

The Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is a beguiling, intriguing place. Known for its hedonistic nightlife, immense cultural offerings and generous, if often slightly bonkers, residents. Buenos Aires could be called every name under the sun, but do you know how it got its actual name? We give you the lowdown on how Buenos Aires came to be named.

The capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires | © Hernán Piñera/Flickr

Buenos Aires in English means “good airs” or “fair winds”. Often called the “Paris of the South” due to its architectural resemblance in certain areas, such as Recoleta, to the French capital, residents, who themselves are called portenos, or “people of the port”, often refer to Buenos Aires as “la ciudad de la furia”, or “the city of fury”, a name given to the city by famous national rock band Soda Stereo. Not because the city itself or its people are furious, but because Buenos Aires has a certain wild charm, something which local residents colloquially call “el quilumbo”, or “the disaster/mess”. El quilumbo of Buenos Aires can mean anything from the chaotic traffic in the streets, the daily protests that take place downtown and often result in closures of large parts of the city centre, the passion boiling in the blood of the city dwellers or the fallout of football matches between rival fans. It is a concept that doesn’t really fit with the English translation of the city’s mellow-sounding name, but it one that is embodied in the liveliness of the Argentine capital and one that perhaps defines it more than being a city of “good airs” or “fair winds”, which in many respects, it certainly is not.

Buenos Aires as the sun goes down | © Armando Maynez/Flickr

There are numerous stories about how Buenos Aires got its name, but it’s safe to say that the name dates back to the Spanish conquistadors who came to Latin America in the 16th century. The name Buen Ayre comes from a hill in Sardinia from where the stench of the swampland in the old city below could not be smelled. This old city swamp was rampant with mosquitoes, which carry malaria, derived from “mal aire”, or “bad air”. A statue of the Virgin Mary was built on this Sardinian hill after a conquest in the Middle Ages, and the legend goes that a statue of the same Virgin Mary was taken from the sea after helping to assuage a storm in the Mediterranean, earning it the fame of the “fair winds”, or buen ayre. A devotee of this newly named saint, Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, was Pedro de Mendoza, a Spanish sailor who established the first port of Buenos Aires in what is now San Telmo, and gave the port its name because it was deemed to be southern enough to evade a strain of marshland mosquitoes, making it a malaria-free port.

The port of La Boca, near San Telmo | © Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr

After the port settlement was attacked by indigenous peoples in the mid-1500s, the port was abandoned, but Spanish seaman Juan de Garay established a new settlement there in 1580. De Garay retained Mendoza’s name for the place, but extended it to become the “Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Nuestra Señora la Virgen María de los Buenos Aires” or the “City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of the Good Airs”. This was the city’s first official name, and it was shortened to Buenos Aires in the 17th century. You will often see the name abbreviated locally when written to BsAs, and abroad to BA.

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