We arrived in San Juan, three hours north of Mendoza and walked the quiet streets to San Juan Hostel our base so we could spend a day exploring Parque Provincial Ischigualasto – also known as the Valley de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). We researched available tours but upon meeting two other travellers at our hostel – Doerthe and Federico from Uruguay, the four of us decided to hire a car and drive there together the next day.
With our small map in hand and instructions from our hostel owners we set off on the 4-hour (325km) journey to Valle de la Luna. About 40 minutes in to our trip, when we should have been arriving at our first landmark it became apparent that perhaps we weren’t heading in the right direction. Argentinians do not really care for directional signs so we continued, waiting for some indication of the direction we were heading. After what seemed like forever waiting for another road sign, our suspicions were confirmed and we had to turn around. Luckily we hadn’t missed our turn by too far and we were soon back on the right course.
Our first stop was to Vallecito, home of the shrine of ‘Difunta Correa’. The legend behind the shrine is that in the 1840s a lady named Deolinda Correa walked the deserts of San Juan searching for her husband’s battalion carrying food, water and their baby son but when her supplies ran out, she died of thirst, hunger and exhaustion. Apparently when passerbys found her however, the infant was still feeding from the dead women’s breast and this was celebrated as a miracle. The shrine is considered the location where she died and since the 1940’s has grown from a simple cross to a small village, with its own gas station, school, post office, police station and church. There are also two hotels, as well as a number of restaurants, souvenir shops and an office for the non-profit organisation in charge of the site. Throughout Argentina there are roadside shrines with her image along with plastic bottles of water left to quench her thirst. Devotees leave gifts at various chapels in exchange for supernatural favours and the shrine continues to grow as belief in her miraculous powers becomes more widespread. It was Easter Thursday and over the Easter long weekend they were expecting up to 200,000 pilgrims to descend on the site. We continued on, passing small villages and enjoying the various landscapes along the way. There was one section of road that was highly entertaining – straight as far as the eye could see but wavy throughout, like a really hectic rollercoaster! We dipped down and back up, feeling our stomachs move along with the car – it was absolutely bizarre to have such a road out in the middle of a flat desert! Federico sipped his mate (pronounced mar-tay rather than “mate”) and Will and I were invited to try it for the first time. Mate is almost like a religion for Argentines (and like Federico, many Uruguayans as well). Yerba mate is a dried leaf, a relative of holly that is put into a mate gourd (I can only think to describe it as a mug but they are traditionally made out of pumpkins), mixed with hot water and drank similar to herbal tea but using a bombilla (silver straw with a filter at the end) to sip it. Everywhere you go in Argentina you will be surrounded by Argentines drinking Mate, sharing it amongst family members, friends and even co-workers. When the mate gourd is filled and passed to you, you must sip through the bombilla until all of the liquid is gone. Argentina is the world’s largest producer and consumer of Mate, consuming an average of 5kg per person each year. Most Argentines will carry a thermos with hot water, a mate gourd, a bombilla and a bag of yerba mate and they will continually fill their mate gourd throughout the day. Restaurants, gas stations, basically anywhere you go will have hot water available so that you can fill your thermos. We arrived at Parque Provincial Ischigualasto and joined a convoy of cars that were all to be escorted by a ranger to drive through the park. The park takes its name from an old word meaning ‘land without life’ and as we drove through the park it was easy to see why it had been called so. The park is full of different rock formations along with dinosaur remains, with some fossils dating back to the Triassic Period (180 milion years old).We drove along, stopping at various rock formations and thankfully having Federico to act as our translator as the guide only spoke Spanish. He could have told us anything and we would have probably believed him! At times you really did feel like you could have been exploring the surface of the moon and we all agreed it would be the perfect place to film the next sci-fi blockbuster. Continuing through the park it was amazing how quickly the landscapes would change and the contrasts throughout. One minute we were “on the moon” driving past crater-like valleys and rock formations such as Cancha de Bochas (the ball court) and then as we continued, large red rock walls and cactuses surrounded us and it was like the scenery from a western film. We stopped at “El Submarino” rock formation before the official tour finished at “El Hongo”. The ranger left us with some time to continue driving on our own, taking in the landscape and having a bit of fun with our cameras. As we drove out of the park, a small fox stood near the side of the road seeing us off (and quite frankly just scaring me) and not long after we were on our way back to San Juan. On our return trip, we all had our moments of doubt as to whether we were heading in the right direction as everything seemed to look different and once again we struggled to find any signs. It was funny because I think we were all thinking the same thing yet no one said anything and we waited nervously for an indication we were in fact on the right path. Luckily this time we were and as we continued we watched as hundreds of Argentines walked and rode along the side path to Vallecito and the shrine of Difunta Correa – the Easter pilgrimage had begun.