Sights in the Vicinity of San Juan de la Frontera

A walkway at the shrine with pillars covered in license plates and garland.

Pilgrims leave an astonishing assortment of license plates, model cars and houses, photographs, and other personal items that signify their gratitude when visiting the Difunta Correa Shrine. Photo © Ansilta Grizas, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Local operators arrange excursions to some of the province’s better but less easily accessible sights, including the Jáchal/Pismanta area and Parque Provincial Ischigualasto (sometimes combined, in a long day trip, with La Rioja’s Parque Nacional Talampaya). In addition to those listed above, try Money Tur (Santa Fe 202 Oeste, tel. 0264/420-1010) or Raphael Joliat at Swiss-run Fascinatur (tel. 0264/15-504-3933, fascinatur@ingamasrl.com or raphaeljoliat@speedy.com.ar), where English and French are spoken.

Ruta del Vino San Juan (Pocito)

On San Juan’s southern outskirts, the locality of Pocito is home to a cluster of wineries that are worth sampling, even if they can’t match Mendoza’s size and diversity. All are on or near RN 40, the paved highway from Mendoza.

Closest to town is Champañera Miguel Más (Calle 11 s/n, tel. 0264/422-5807, miguelmas@ infovia.com.ar), 300 meters east of RN 40. A family-run bodega with only 2.5 hectares of organic grapes, it produces fewer than 10,000 bottles of sparkling wine per annum. It also makes some cabernet sauvignon and malbec, a small amount of muscatel, and quantities of jam and honey. At this mom-and-pop operation, tours and tasting are about as personal as can be; hours are 9 a.m.–6 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Saturday.

About two kilometers farther south, fronting the west side of the highway, Fabril Alto Verde (RN 40 between Calle 13 and Calle 14, tel. 0264/421-2683) is an organic winery with a more high-tech and diverse production that includes varietals like Chablis, chardonnay, malbec, and Syrah, plus some sparkling wines. The winery and its contemporary tasting room are open for tours (make advance arrangements for English) 9 a.m.–1 p.m. and 3:30–7:30 p.m. Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Saturday.

In sheer tourist appeal, the best choice is Viñas de Segisa (Aberastain y Calle 15, tel. 0264/492-2000, 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun.), a boutique winery that has conserved its century-old facilities and adapted them to individualized guided tours—which include tastings directly from their cellar casks. It is nevertheless a contemporary bodega producing cabernet sauvignon, Syrah, malbec, chardonnay, and a torrontés-chardonnay blend, plus a premium line that includes tempranillo.

Dique Ullum

In San Juan’s hot, arid climate, the vineyards thrive on water from 3,200-hectare Dique Ullum, 18 kilometers west of town via RP 60; it’s also the place where Sanjuaninos go to beat the heat by swimming, sailing, windsurfing, and fishing. From the bus terminal, take bus No. 23 to Zonda; for schedules, contact Empresa Ullum (tel. 0264/422-1910).

If the heat relents, hike from the dam outlet to the top of 1,800-meter Cerro Tres Marías. This waterless walk traces the crest of the southwest-trending Serranía de Marquesado and takes two hours one-way. The conspicuous zigzag trail begins at the Stations of the Cross; carry plenty of liquids and high-energy snacks.

Difunta Correa Shrine

Until very recently, Roman Catholicism was Argentina’s official faith, and it still permeates daily life. When the shepherd fails the flock, though, the people seek help from popular saints like the Difunta Correa—whose shrine draws upwards of 100,000 Semana Santa pilgrims to the desert hamlet of Vallecito, about 60 kilometers east of San Juan. More than a religious experience, it’s an economic force, and even nonbelievers will find plenty to contemplate in the contradictions between the sacred and the profane.

According to legend, María Antonia Deolinda Correa died of thirst in the desert while following her conscript husband—a small landowner—during the mid-19th-century civil wars. When passing muleteers found her body, though, her baby son was still at her breast. While it seems far-fetched that any infant could survive on milk from a lifeless body, the legend had such resonance that the waterless site became a spontaneous shrine. The Difunta (“Defunct,” as dead people are known in the countryside) became a popular “saint,” despite uncertainty that she even existed.

Read more about the Difunta Correa Shrine...
In the 150-plus years since the Difunta first colonized the consciousness of poor Sanjuaninos, millions of other Argentines have come to regard her as a miracle worker. She is not a saint, though—the official church regards her as a superstition (at best) or contrary to dogma (at worst). It has even installed its own priest and built its own church to combat the heresy.

Church efforts have been futile. From negligible origins as a solitary cross atop a knoll, the shrine has grown into a complex that includes a hotel, a campground, restaurants, a police station, a post office, a school, souvenir shops, and even its own tourist office. There is also the Fundación Vallecito, the nonprofit bureaucracy that administers the site.

For queues of pilgrims, though, the goal is the grotto with a prostrate image of the Difunta and her baby. To fulfill pledges they have made and to thank her for favors granted, some crawl the concrete steps backwards like crabs. They leave an astonishing assortment of license plates, model cars and houses, photographs, and other personal items that signify their gratitude; the foundation, for its part, “recycles” many items to finance its activities (which include delivery of 2,000 liters of water daily from the town of Caucete).

Pilgrims visit the shrine all year. It’s most impressive at Easter, May Day, and Christmas, but events like mid-April’s gauchesco Cabalgata de la Fe (Ride of Faith) from San Juan and December’s Festival del Camionero (Trucker’s Festival) are increasingly important.

Writing in the 19th century, Domingo F. Sarmiento—himself a Sanjuanino—expressed what the official church still privately believes about rural religious practices like the Difunta Correa: “Christianity exists…as a tradition which is perpetuated, but corrupted; colored by gross superstitions and unaided by instruction, rites, or convictions.”

Believers, for their part, see no contradiction between their formal faith and devotion to the Difunta. That devotion has spread throughout the republic, as shown in roadside shrines—some astonishingly elaborate—from the Bolivian border to Tierra del Fuego. Their marker is the water-filled bottles left to slake her thirst, but there are also banknotes (from the hyperinflationary past), low-value coins, and miscellaneous vehicle parts (truckers are among her most committed adherents).

The Difunta may be the most widespread of popular religious figures, as measured by roadside shrines, but she’s not the only one. Sites devoted to the Gaucho Antonio Gil, an unjustly executed “Robin Hood” figure from Corrientes Province, are proliferating alongside the Difunta since Argentina’s 2001 economic and political implosion.

The shrine has its own branch of the provincial tourist office; there is also an ostensibly official website.

Informally, pilgrims camp almost anywhere they like, but the shrine’s own Hotel Difunta Correa (tel. 0264/496-1018 in Caucete, US$37 d) has Spartan rooms with private baths (electric showers) and breakfast; it’s presumably undergoing an upgrade, which may amount to little more than fresh paint. There’s plenty of parrillada plus empanadas and similar snacks at any of several street-side comedores.

From San Juan, Empresa Vallecito (tel. 0264/422-1181) has direct service to the shrine (1 hour, US$5 round-trip) at 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., returning at 11:15 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. Other eastbound buses, toward cities like La Rioja or Córdoba, will stop at the shrine on request.

Jáchal and Vicinity

From San Juan, paved RN 40 leads 156 kilometers north to the vineyards and olive orchards of San José de Jáchal (pop. 10,901), a town renowned for its gaucho customs and its handmade blankets and ponchos. Mid-November’s weekend Fiesta de la Tradición highlights this reputation, while its most notable sight is the Iglesia San José (1878), a national historical monument blemished by a new and incongruous freestanding bell tower. Also notable is the church’s Cristo Negro (Black Christ) or Señor de la Agonía (Lord of Agony), a grisly 18th-century image imported from Bolivia.

East of Jáchal, the scenic graveled RP 491 links up with RN 40 to the village of Huaco, the birthplace and gravesite of poet and musician Buenaventura Luna (a lacquered cement guitar lies atop his adobe tomb). Huaco is also home to the Viejo Molino, a magnificently restored late-colonial flour mill.

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To the west, narrow RN 150 leads through madly folded landforms over the pass known as the Cuesta del Viento to the town of Rodeo, where Rafting San Juan (Paoli s/n, tel. 0264/427-6143, 0264/433-2352, or 0264/15-436-6439) descends the Class III Río Jáchal, a good starter river with one exciting slot canyon.

Jáchal has numerous campgrounds. A block-plus north of the plaza, Hotel San Martín (Echegaray 367, tel. 02647/42-0431, US$20 s, US$27 d) has commodious rooms with amenities such as air-conditioning, cable TV, and private baths; it has made an impressive effort to improve common areas as well. Half a block east of the plaza, moribund Hotel Plaza (San Juan 546, tel. 02647/42-0256, US$10–12 s, US$15–20 d) has rooms with either shared or private baths. For dining, try Nicco y Pascual (San Martín and Echegaray), at the southwest corner of the plaza.

On the plaza’s north side, the obliging Casa de la Cultura y Turismo (tel. 02647/42-0003, ext. 311) is open 24‑7 (the night watchman does his best in the early hours).

Jáchal’s Terminal de Ómnibus (Presidente Perón and Laprida) is six blocks east and three blocks south of the plaza. From San Juan, the main carriers are Clasur (tel. 0264/421-4108) and TAC (also tel. 0264/421-4108).

Pismanta and Vicinity

From Rodeo, paved RN 150 leads southwest to the foothill hot springs of Pismanta, where Hotel Termas de Pismanta (tel. 02647/49-7091, US$40 s, US$71 d, with breakfast, up to US$55 s, US$103 d, with full board) attracts mostly middle-aged and aging Argentines to its enormous hot baths and a decent restaurant that are both open to nonguests.

From Pismanta, RN 150 climbs 92 kilometers through the upper Jáchal drainage to the Chilean border at 4,779-meter Paso de Agua Negra, the highest pass between the two countries. Open at least December–March, it features an impressive glacier and the snowmelt pinnacles known as penitentes along the narrow highway, which continues to the scenic Elqui Valley and the beach resort of La Serena in Chile. San Juan authorities envision keeping it open all year—highly unlikely without expensive tunneling.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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