May 6-10, 2006 - The Argentina Andes

Saturday morning we headed into Mendoza for a quick half day to explore and to stock back up with food.  Although businesses are open on Saturday, they generally work only a half day.  Driving into town and all around we were surprised not to find any supermarkets, where are they hidden?  OK, we'll wander around instead.  We found a parking spot close to the center and headed off.  As we walked across the main plaza a women yelled at us that we had something spilled on our clothes.  Oh Oh, experience has told us that when this happens, the woman has probably squirted something on us in an attempt to have us stop so that she or an accomplice can try to pick pocket us.  So we yelled at her to chase her away, then went into a big hotel to clean up.  Turned out that she must have squirted some lotion onto both of our backs expecting that we would stop and be confused.  No way!  But it did turn out that the hotel had a wifi connection that we were able to use after we cleaned up.  We took time to enjoy a mid-day meal out before driving northward again, this time to the outskirts of San Juan where we spent a quiet night at a Petrobras gas station similar to those we had found in Brazil.

The next morning we drove into the center of San Juan, again looking for a grocery store.  This time we were successful (with some help from a local) and were finally able to stock up.  We had noticed that the store seemed to be very busy (especially for a Sunday) but when we reached the checkout, we found long lines of people with their carts piled high.  Turns out that that Sunday was the first of a series of Discount Sundays and people turned out in droves.  We probably waited in line as long as it took us to shop the entire store.

After leaving the store, we headed east to the Difunta Correa shrine to have lunch.  The Difunta Correa is a popularly venerated soul who, according to legend, has performed miracles.  Legend has it that during the civil wars in the 1840's, Deolinda Correa followed her husband from battle to battle.  Eventually succumbing to hunger and thirst, Correa died.  When found by passersby, Correa was dead, but her baby still suckled at her breast.  This is considered her first miracle.  Since then, people have come to the site where she was found and prayed for whatever they need.  Small chapels have been erected on the site to house the offerings that people bring to express thanks for favors received. The most popular offerings include models of houses, license plates, gifts of flowers and notes,  however some offerings are quite elaborate including a car and a motorcycle.  One of the stranger items was a stuffed dog!  

One of the chapels has a life size rendering of the defunct (difunta) Correa in repose with her baby at her breast.  People enter the chapel and touch the statue with the same reverence as they would a statue of Christ.  This has the Catholic church quite annoyed.  The Difunta is not a saint and there is no proof that she even existed. (While another popular miracle-maker, Gauchito Gil, did actually exist.)  The church has even gone so far as to erect a church on the site to combat the popularity of the Difunta.  

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The site, which started as a simple cross on a hillside, has grown in size to include 17 chapels, vendors, restaurants, the church and even a gas station.  The day we visited was a Sunday and hundreds of families were visiting and picnicking.  There even appeared to be a group who had charted fourteen buses to visit the shrine and party complete with a band.  Quite a sight.  One of the down sides to the veneration of the Difunta is that at small shrines in both Argentina and Chile, people leave bottles of water to quench the Difunta's thirst.  This has created a huge trash problem as the thousands of bottles of water get scattered to the four winds.

After leaving the Difunta Correa behind, we continued our drive north which took us into the Andean desert.  We started seeing large cardon cactuses and many other desert plants that reminded us of the Arizona desert.  We were able to find a road heading off to toward the mountains and found a great wildcamp spot.  The location was so attractive that the next morning we decided to do some laundry (the sun was actually shining!) and spend the day enjoying.

On Tuesday, we headed off to the Parque Provincial Ischigualasto which has a surreal landscape of a "badlands" type of erosion with interesting colors.  There is an area that, due to geological forces, forms balls that come up out of the ground.  

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There is also a bright red sandstone cliff overshadowing the canyon, with more weird erosion of sandstone, leaving top heavy formations called hongos, or mushrooms.  The area also contains very rich fossil bearing rocks from the Triassic period and later.  The earliest known (oldest) fossil was found here.  Scientists refer to it as a "paleontologist's paradise".  The park can only be visited with a guide, but since the Fuso only has two seats, we followed another car with a guide, around the park for three hours.  Such a deal.

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After spending the night in the park's campground (which is essentially a parking lot), we headed off the the town of Catamarca.  On the way out, we spotted our very first Mara hares.  We have been looking for these native rabbits since the last expedition into Patagonia.  We passed more desert vegetation, lots more large cardon cactus, palo verde type trees, organ pipe and large prickly pear type cactuses that were very tall, more like a tree with a height over 10 ft tall, and with multiple arms.

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