dctruck-1024The story goes that in the 1840s, a young man from the province of San Juan was conscripted to fight in the Argentine Civil Wars. His distraught wife, María Antonia Deolinda Correa, went looking for him in the desert towards the province of La Rioja. When she ran out of water, she died of thirst. However, when her body was discovered by passing gauchos, her young son was found alive with her, still feeding from his dead mother’s breast. Milagro.

We first encountered a roadside shrine to the mythic Difunta Correa on Ruta 8 outside Buenos Aires, 1,700km ago. We’ve seen dozens since then, of different sizes but all taking roughly the same shape: a small hut housing a figure, usually plastic, surrounded by water bottles left by truckers, gauchos, families and other travellers dedicated to this folk religion. (We wrote about it briefly in this post.) None of the shrines, though, prepared us for the sanctuary to the Difunta Correa in the one-horse desert town of Vallecito, where legend says the Difunta is buried.

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The sanctuary sits atop a hill, maybe 20 or 30 metres above the road. The pathway to it is canopied, lined on three sides with gifts, messages, photographs and car numberplates left by the devoted. ‘Gracias, Difunta Correa,’ they begin, and sometimes also end. Of the thousands who visit each year, most walk to the summit, but some get on their knees and crawl.

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At the top sit more messages and gifts: numberplates again, photographs, construction workers’ helmets, wedding dresses, footballs – anything for which the devotee feels gratitude. There are chapels and there are thousands of tiny plaques, hammered or glued on to every surface. There are innumerable bottles of water, all piled up as if awaiting attention at a recycling plant. Look down on to the hillside, meanwhile, and you’ll see a miniature city of tiny, folk art constructions made and left by the devoted: houses, sheds, even a burger van. Gracias, Difunta Correa.

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Vallecito has built quite a tourist industry out of this peculiar phenomenon. Riding to the town along a 30km ciclovia that runs parallel to the main road from Caucete, we were passed in both directions by dozens of coaches; although the Difunta isn’t attached to any formal religion, the shrine is busiest on Sundays. And on arriving, the first thing we found was a long string of souvenir shops hawking all manner of Difuntabilia. ‘Difunta Correa protege mi bici,’ reads the sticker on Will’s bike; ‘Difunta Correa protects my bike.’ Not terribly well, it would seem: Will got a puncture the next morning.

dcprotege-2048It isn’t just the Difunta Correa who runs out of water in this arid region. It is laughably hot here, highs nearing 40°C, and doing anything at all in the afternoon is pretty much out of the question. We’re rising and riding early, trying to take shelter in the afternoons. However, we’re already chewing on the fact that with such long distances between towns (read: water) and temperatures likely to rise into the forties, we may need the occasional bus to come to our rescue.

from San Agustín de Valle Fertil, SJ, Argentina