Why you should care
Because it’s just so weird it needs to be seen.
A middle-aged man crouches, sobbing, next to the crudely painted concrete statue of a dead, breastfeeding woman at the center of the tiny room. He crosses himself and places a packet of candles next to her head, before leaving a Coke bottle filled with tap water. After he leaves I replace one of the fake chrysanthemums that has fallen from her chest, and nearly trip over a sleeping dog as I try to make sense of the thousands of plaques, family portraits and handwritten notes adorning every inch of the walls.
More than a million visitors come to Vallecito, in western Argentina, each year to see this shrine to motherhood. Here’s the backstory: In around 1835, Deolinda Correa set off across the desert with her infant child, determined to rescue her husband, who was forcibly conscripted to fight in the civil war gripping the region. After days of walking in the harsh sun without water, Deolinda lay down to die, and, in her final act as a mother, began to breastfeed her baby boy. A few days later, a group of muleteers came across her body and found the baby alive, still feeding. The soldiers buried her beneath a simple cross inscribed with the words “Difunta Correa” (Deceased Correa).
Every inch of the hill is littered with water bottles, license plates and scale models of people’s homes.
If you like your tourist attractions conventional, you’d best steer clear of this scraggly complex of chapels, restaurants and souvenir stores selling all manner of tat bearing the quasi saint’s likeness. (Check out the trippy rock formations of the nearby Valle de la Luna instead.) But if you’re keen to get a window on how modern Argies meld Catholicism and pre-Columbian superstition, Difunta Correa is a must-visit. As an added bonus, it’s home to some of the most grotesque statues you’ll ever see: My mom and I had great fun trying to decide which of the dozen or so Difuntas was our favorite.
Bank on witnessing some touching acts of faith (think grown men crawling up the hill on their hands and knees) and being blown away by the sheer volume of offerings left by visitors: Every inch of the hill is littered with water bottles (Correa died of thirst), license plates and scale models of people’s homes (some rudimentary, some incredibly intricate). The chapels, arranged by theme, are equally cluttered. One is filled with sporting trophies and jerseys; another features row upon row of neatly hung wedding dresses.
The busiest season is in the lead-up to Easter, when the 5,500 riders of the Cabalgata de Fe (the Horseride of Faith, a celebration of gaucho cuisine, music and culture) come to town, but you can find a steady stream of more sober pilgrims throughout the year. Entry to the sanctuary — which is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day — is free, but Franco Brizuela, who’s worked there for seven years, says “donations of cash, food and building materials are all welcome.” These are used for good works in the impoverished surrounds, like feeding the children in the local orphanage and upgrading facilities in the neighborhood school.
Forget the milongas and football stadiums of Buenos Aires: Argentina’s beating heart is found on a sandy hill littered with water bottles some 712 miles to the west of the nation’s capital.
Go there: Difunta Correa
- Price: Free (but donations are welcome)
- Get there: The sanctuary is 40 miles from San Juan and 120 miles from Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina. Rent a car or contact Vallecito bus company at +84 (0)264 4221181.
- Pro tip: Not gonna make it to the sanctuary? Check out one of the thousands of roadside shrines in Argentina. Those surrounded by red flags pay homage to Gauchito Gil (the so-called gaucho Robin Hood who is the country’s other unofficial saint), while piles of plastic bottles are a dead giveaway that the Difunta Correa is in residence.