Crossing the Andes -- Valle de Calingasta, Argentina

April 12-19, 2007


Barreal and the broad sweep of the Valle de Calingasta, backed by the crest of the Andes (Cerro Aconcagua in the distance on the far left).




From Valparaiso we took the bus over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina. The trip starts at the Pacific coast and traverses the width of Chile, winding up an endless series of switchbacks, and crosses the 12,650' Paso de los Cumbres at the Argentine border, just south of the highest peak in the western hemisphere -- the 22,950' Cerro Aconcagua. It is a barren journey though, as the mountains are devoid of trees and the landscape of crumbling rock has a distinct lunar feel.




In San Juan, we picked up another tiny VW Gol rental car and set out across the dry barren landscape on lonely two-lane roads to the Valle de Calingasta, sandwiched between the high Andes and the eroded badlands of the precordillera range. Barreal is a small peaceful valley town where bicycles and horses outnumber cars as the main mode of local transport. We stayed in a 150 year old adobe posada run by Senor Ricardo, a true country gentleman. Its shady interior courtyard and 14 inch thick walls kept us cool during the heat of the midday siesta when everything shuts down.


It's mid-April and the poplar trees are in their full autumn glory.


On a sparkling clear day at the nearby dry lake bed of El Leoncito, the land sailors wait in vain for a breeze.






Oracion a la Difunta Correa

Madre del que sufre,

Madre del que llora,

Bendita seas por siempre,

Bajo la protección divina.


As is the case everywhere we've traveled around the world, we encounter countless shrines in Argentina. All along the roadsides there are small shelters filled with bottles of water for Difunta Correa -- the woman who died crossing the desert following her husband, but whose child was found alive, suckling at her breast -- or colorful shrines for El Gauchito Gil, a Robin Hood-like folk hero who deserted the army in the 1840's and began stealing cattle from the rich and providing for the poor. He was finally caught and hung in northeastern Argentina, but just before he died, he informed his executioner that the executioner's son was gravely ill. Sure enough, the son was ill, and Gauchito Gil's legendary status was sealed. You can't miss the shrines on every road, surrounded by flapping red flags. When passing, honk your horn or you will suffer long delays, or worse yet, never return. We honk our horn as we pass Gauchito Gil shrines, one shrine after another




One afternoon we drove to the site of Difunta Correa's death, a dusty desert outpost about two hours east of San Juan. What began in 1940 as a simple roadside shrine, over the years has turned into a major pilgrim site--we just missed seeing the 200,000 pilgrims who descended on the site (many after walking hundreds of miles) during Easter week. There are now seventeen chapels, little houses with bizarre collections of very personal stuff left by grateful believers: trophies, family portraits, photos of race cars and champion race horses, handmade replicas of their houses and cars, and racks of gorgeous silk wedding gowns. The buildings are covered with small thank you plaques, and one chapel has a life-size painted plaster sculpture of the Difunta and her baby. A continuous stream of men, women and children enter the shrine to stroke her cheek and recite the Oracion a la Difunta Correa.

The area has grown into a small village (Vallacitos) with a gas station, two hotels, and souvenir shops selling Difunta knickknacks. Beat up old pilgrim buses are parked along the access road, there are banos that I wished I hadn't visited, and many down and out folks hoping for better fortune wander about. On the highest hill overlooking this strange scene is a small Catholic church, trying hard to compete with the Difunta phenomena.


Valparaiso, Chile (bus) ► Mendoza, Argentina (bus) ► San Juan (car) ► Barreal (car) ► San Juan