San Juan province is a victim of Argentina’s embarrassment of riches. With so many better-known attractions on the tip of people’s tongues, it falls off the radar for most foreign tourists, which is a shame considering the caliber of its offerings.
If you are feeling adventurous and want to see an under explored part of the country, a visit to San Juan can easily been tacked on to a trip to Mendoza. Here’s our guide to the hotspots.
Skip the capital city of San Juan, which sadly had most of its charm destroyed by successive earthquakes, and head straight to the tiny town of Barreal. Located between the Andes and the precordillera, it is just five hours north of Mendoza and has its own sheltered microclimate. Suddenly, amid arid peaks, a fertile oasis appears, full of orchards and poplar trees. Most impressive of all are the seven towering, snow-capped Andean mountains that form its glorious backdrop. Book yourself a room at La Querencia and this could be your morning view:
The view at La Querencia, Barreal; photo by Vicky Baker.
Barreal also has a national park, El Leoncito, plus a 10km-long dried lakebed, La Pampa del Leoncito, that makes an unusual sports field for carrovelismo (landsailing). For 70km-an-hour adrenalin rush, contact Wind Car Barreal (email).
On top of all this, the area is renowned for having ultra-clear, pollution-free skies for around 300 days of the year, so is home to two astronomical observatories. Complejo Astronómico El Leoncito offers night tours where you can check out their prized 40-ton telescope and stargaze with the experts.
Valle de la Luna
From the stars to the moon, further north is the province’s biggest attraction, the Valle de la Luna, also known by the official – and slightly less catchy – name of Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. Shaped like footballs, mushrooms and submarines, rocks look more like artistic sculptures than 200-million-year-old geological formations. Dinosaurs roamed here, and you could almost imagine that they still do.
In keeping with the name, the park runs full and new moon tours, and has recently added dawn excursions too. A good place to use as a base – and arrange excursions from – is Finca la Media Luna.
Valle de la Luna, San Juan; photo courtesy of Lucio Landa.
The Difunta Correa Shrine
This is a surreal experience you should not miss when driving through San Juan. Just outside of a tiny desert hamlet of Vallecito (60km east of San Juan city) is a sprawling shrine dedicated to María Antonia Deolinda Correa.
Legend has it that Correa was walking through the desert with her baby son to meet her conscripted husband during a civil war in the 1840s when she died of thirst. Days after her death, her baby was found still drinking the milk from her breast. A miracle!
This unofficial saint is now a national icon. So many people want to pay their respects – praying to her for heath and wealth – that the shrine has morphed into a bustling tourist complex. A small model house and replica cars are left as signs of what people want to achieve in the real world or what they are thankful for.
Difunta Correa shrine; photo by Vicky Baker.
San Juan’s Wineries
Mendoza gets all the international recognition for Argentina’s wine output, but this is the country’s second biggest wine region, with exceptional high-elevation vineyards in Pedernal and Calingasta. Try Graffigna (which also has its own museum), Xumek, Finca Las Moras or Callia.
So, all things considered, would it be too bold to suggest a traveller got their wine-and-mountains fix in San Juan rather than following the crowds to Mendoza? There is no reason why not.
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