North to Tucumán, November 19-22

From Mendoza province we headed north, first to two famous desert parks and then continuing to the Tucumán region.

Not far from the city of San Juan, we stopped into one of the most curious tourist sites of our entire trip so far: Difunta Correa. Follow the link to read the legend behind this pseudo-religious, moderately-supernatural shrine, which consists of two identical statues of a dead woman with a nursing infant (photo 1). What's fascinating is the incredible institution the shrine has become: a complete city, marked prominently on every map, has sprung up around it. We only stopped because it was directly on our route, but thousands of Argentines make it a destination each weekend; hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage on holidays like Easter and Christmas.

Difunta Correa herself is considered a miracle-worker, specifically the "patron saint of travelers" (although the Catholic church has made a point of not getting on board). The shrine is surrounded by thousands of license plates and car parts -- some in an oil-covered, black-smoke-billowing perpetual bonfire; they're relics from auto accidents with miraculous survivals, thanks to Difunta. The shrine also has the usual array of candles, flowers, and other offerings, along with innumerable water bottles (a few can be seen in the photo) -- Difunta Correa is believed to have died of thirst. Being travelers ourselves, we decided it best to leave a little something, just in case. In addition to the main site, miniature Difunta Correa shrines can be found along roads all over Argentina (apparently sustained primarily by truck drivers); we see several every driving day.

The first of the two parks we visited, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto (colloquially Valle de la Luna -- Valley of the Moon), is known primarily for its variety of weird rock formations (photos 2 and 3). Traveling within the park is heavily regulated, always with a guide. We made three excursions using three different modes of transportation: a driving tour in a convoy with the guide in the lead car, a trek to a mountain peak (in the background of photo 4), and a mountain-bike loop (photos 4 and 5) that included some moderately challenging terrain for us novices. Our guide for the hiking and biking, Mario, was a pleasant and very competent gray-haired fellow who made good company, partly because our Spanish is coming along. (Alex, by far the most conscientious learner of the family, already can carry on some basic conversations. It certainly does make for smoother traveling.)

The second park, Parque Nacional Talampaya, is known for its deep canyons and towering red cliffs (photos 6-8; note the kids for scale in photo 6). Once again we weren't permitted into the park without a guide, and several options were on offer: bus tour, mountain-bike tour, and a variety of hikes. We started with a spectacular half-day hike that was so enjoyable we decided to quit while we were ahead.

One nice aspect of the parks and guided excursions has been meeting a variety of other travelers. On our first hike we were joined by three thirty-something Argentines. We didn't think we'd gotten all that friendly with them, but the two women gave all four of us hugs and kisses when we finished (a missed photo opportunity with blushing Tim). A German couple was camped next to us one night at a ranger station. They're teachers also taking a year off, currently cycling from Cusco, Peru all the way to Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina. On our hike in Talampaya we were joined by a well-traveled, outdoorsy, and charming older couple from the Netherlands. The Germans and the Dutch are traveling north-to-south (the opposite of our current direction), so in addition to the usual chit-chat, we were able to exchange useful travel information.

We've been in Argentina about 2½ weeks so far and have driven just over 4000 kilometers. On past camper vacations we've made it a goal to average fewer than 100 miles per day over the course of the trip, to ensure we're spending our time enjoying the destination and not merely making tracks on the highway. With the vast distances here, and the kids keeping busy with schoolwork, we're comfortable stretching our average to 200 kilometers (120 miles) per day, but we hope not much more.

Finding camping spots each night can get interesting, although we all agree it's less pressure than we felt finding the ideal hotel every night on the first part of the trip. The hardest part is locating campgrounds on the nights we stay in a town -- they always exist, it's the locating that can be challenging. Our worst experience so far was in the medium-sized (and apparently declining) city of La Rioja. The tourist office had gone defunct, but three campgrounds were listed in our atlas and guidebooks. We quickly discerned that one of them no longer existed, and the second had some low-hanging wires over the entrance that our camper wouldn't clear. We spent hours trying to find the third: first coordinating our listings with maps and reality, then driving every road in the vicinity 2-3 times, then asking various people who confidently sent us in a variety of directions. When we stopped to ask a policeman, we even briefly acquired a motorcycle-police escort to head us the "right" way, to no avail. Finally we went back to the campground with the low-hanging wires. The proprietor told us the campground we were looking for had closed, invited us to stay in his, and fetched a long rake to poke up those pesky wires so we could drive on in.

Finding internet also can be interesting. On one occasion it had been several days without internet, we had a travelog to post, and we were headed for a remote region. We visited all three internet shops in the last small town, but none were suitable for connecting laptops, or so it seemed. (Most amazing, unless we were miscommunicating, is that nobody in the town had even heard of wireless internet.) Feeling desperate, we returned to the shop with the most laid-back proprietor. He let Alex fiddle around with the computers and networking -- success! All of that took quite a while, so imagine our surprise that evening when we settled into our camping spot next to a ranger station in the middle of nowhere and discovered an open wireless network.

Coming soon: Tim's report on the geology of western Argentina

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