Walking in the desert surrounding Mendoza, we’d seen small roadside shrines made out of tiny mud bricks and stones. Sometimes there were little statues, sometimes nothing but water-filled plastic bottles.
It was hot. Really hot. And since we were having no luck with hitch-hiking we considered for a moment that if we got stuck out there we’d drink the water from the bottles.
It didn’t come to that, luckily.
A week later, in Salta, we were riding through the desert landscape of Quebrada de las Conchas, with more water than we needed. In the misty dampness our guide pointed out a red shrine under a tree. It was for Gauchito Gil, who was hanged from a tree but whose supernatural powers, according to legend, have influence from beyond the grave.
We asked if the shrines we’d seen in the desert had also been made for Gauchito Gil, and that’s when we learned about another folkloric miracle worker.
In the 19th century, a young woman had been crossing the desert with her baby to reach her sick husband who was fighting in the civil war. Without enough water, she died. Days later some gauchos found her body, the baby miraculously still alive having fed from her ever flowing breast milk.
Like Gauchito Gil, she has become a popular folk-figure preyed to for help and miracles. A debate among the Argentinians in our bus began over whether the Catholic Church officially recognized either Difunta Correa or Gauchito Gil. They told us that if in need you can take water from her shrine, but you must later replenish it.
Two days later, our long-distance bus made a stop in a middle-of-no-where village. The road was just a dust track, but there were lots of parilla restaurants with outdoor barbecue pits where animal carcasses were stretched out as if undergoing some kind of medieval torture. Behind a row of little gift stalls, a dry path led up a hill through what looked like piles of junk. We decided to explore.
What we found was a huge shrine complex devoted to Difunta Correa, in her final resting place. The ‘piles of junk’ were models of houses and businesses, offered in hope and gratitude for her help. Weather-worn figurines of the prone Difunta, complete with bare breast and baby, adorned the stairs and railings of the pathway as it lead upwards. License plates, and the occasional motorcycle helmet, hung from the roofed cover of the staircase and little church at the top. Photos and notes of thanks were attached with string and drawing pins to every available surface.
A man was crawling on hands and knees in supplication as he neared the top. A woman reached into a large concrete pit to light a candle amongst a mass of wax stumps and burning flames and whispered something with her hands pressed together. Another woman took a bottle of water from the many that were next to a well, and then threw an empty bottle into a pile on the other side, presumably to be refilled later. Inside the tiny church, people bent their heads in prayer to the life-size figure in a red dress.
We had hardly enough time to look before we had to descend through the hill of votives and pass the gift shops, selling the same little figurines used as offerings, and get back on our departing bus.
This was a world away from Buenos Aires or Rosario, which felt like being in any European country.