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.

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.

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.