Having your own mode of transportation has a lot of benefits. We have said countless times that there is no substitute for having the ability to explore a country free of the constraints of public transportation and on your own schedule. When you have your own transportation, I believe you become a lot more aware of your surroundings, especially the small details that might blur by the window of a bus or a train. One thing that I have noticed a lot of here in South America are roadside shires. If you ask any of the other members on the expedition, they might actually go as far as suggesting that I have become obsessed by these roadside tributes, especially when I slam on the brakes to go and take a closer look at them.
The roadside shrines in Argentina and Chile come in all shapes and sizes. The shrines range in size from a small alter the size of a birdhouse to a life-size structure that you can physically enter. Many of the shrines seem to be clustered along the outskirts of towns, although they can also be found scattered along the roads weaving throughout the countryside in seemingly random fashion. After a few months of observation and after doing a little bit of research, I have decided to group the shrines I see into three main categories, each of which are related to who the shrine has been constructed in honor of.
Arguably the most prominent of the roadside shrines are those built in honor of Gaucho Gil. You will know immediately if a shrine is in honor of Gauch Gil by the red flags, scarves and paint decorating them. Some of the shrines to Gauch Gil have so many flags waving in the wind that you can spot them from a mile away. Gaucho Gil is a bit of a folk hero in Argentinean culture. A man who refused to go to war, Gaucho Gil deserted the army and as he was evading capture, Gil was robbing from the rich and giving to the poor while helping the sick with his healing hands. Gil was eventually captured and while pleading for his life, he explained to the military sergeant who captured him that he could help his ill son. Gil’s pleas did not work and he was executed by the sergeant who later found out that his son was in fact seriously ill. The sergeant’s son did make a miraculous recovery, but the sergeant credited the recovery of his son to praying to Gil for help. Shortly thereafter, the sergeant erected the first shrine in Gil’s honor. The distinctive shrines honoring the Robinhood-like, healing gaucho are now dotted all over the country and it is thought that the red flags and scarves characteristic of these shrines represent Gil’s neck scarf soaked in blood after his execution.
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During the civil war in Argentina in the mid 1800’s a man fighting in the war, Baudilio Correa, was captured, taken to the town of La Rioja and killed. Desperately wanting to recover the body of her dead husband, the grieving widow Deolinda decided to take her baby and walk to La Rioja to recover it. Unfortunately, Deolinda was unable to find water on the way to La Rioja and collapsed on the side of the road and tragically died. A passerby later found her body and miraculously, her baby was still alive, surviving by sucking milk from her breast. Deolinda’s grave soon became a holy site and people began to credit her for looking after them while lost on the road. Deolinda is now regarded as the saint of all travelers and more recently, has become especially popular among bus and truck drivers. Deolinda’s shrines are characterized by people leaving bottles of water for her in addition to photos of mangled vehicles left by people who credit her for saving them from seemingly fatal accidents on the road.
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Other Miscellaneous Shrines
Undoubtedly, most of the shrines on the side of the road are either built in honor of Gaucho Gil or Deolinda Correa, however, there is also a noticeable presence of other religiously themed shrines lining the sides of the road in Argentina and especially Chile. The vast majority of these shrines are catholic in nature, owing to the strong catholic presence in the region, but there are many shrines that seem to be constructed at the sites of a fatal accidents. It is sort of ironic that these types of shrines have popped up on the road after a tragedy has occurred… it is almost as if the builders feel that Deolinda in particular was not looking out for their loved ones and in a show of spite, constructed a shrine to honor their kin instead of one honoring the person who was supposed to be looking out for them. Whatever the case may be, they are all over the place and just like the shrines to Gil and Deolinda, vary in size, shape and elaborateness.
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