A Piece of Forgotten History

The old Buenos Aires railway stretches east from Mendoza through forgotten towns and villages. Ben Shirley lives in one such place – San Roque.

 San Róque is forgotten in time and untapped by tourism.  It is sat on the eastern edge of the department of Maipú on the bank of the River Mendoza. A microcosm of the conservative traditional province of Mendoza, this the most conservative and traditional of villages. As Mendoza is distant from the roaring metropolis of Buenos Aires in the far west of Argentina, so is San Róque,  heading back east away from the city, isolated from the roaring metropolis of Mendoza. Historically it was the last outpost before crossing the river and setting off back across the country. It is deeply set in rural society simply saturated in stories from the past. It is also, of course, a hub of wine production, with wineries ranging from the world renowned Zuccardi winery and vineyards, to small family run organic wineries and olive oil factories.

The key to its history is its location. Due east of Mendoza, the village’s original plaza with historic church are on the Carril Viejo Antiguo, built on the original river pass, where geographically it was the easiest place to cross. Now the river is a mere 3 or 4 meters wide at this point, but centuries and millennia ago it would have been 300 or even 400 meters. The Carril Viejo was the original road from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, and was built on the pre-existing indigenous path used by the gauchos and before them the Huarpe and Mapuche Indians. And before them the animals and even the dinosaurs. There are many sacred historical footprints in this forgotten little corner of the world.  The archeological evidence supports this. In the nearby village of Barrancas there are the remains of an indigenous habitat with a complete set of intact skeletons, and countess other remains being discovered al the time. Near total disregard for such things by present day Argentinians means that many potential discoveries have been lost, however the archeological and educational interests are being made clearer all the time and now the area has been recognized or what ii is and there has been recognized as an Archeological site of interest by  the local government who has ensured essential protection and funding for ongoing investigation. The map below shows the area of archeological interest.

Unrelated to this history but also of interest is that this area is on a geographical fault line, the Barrancas Fault Line, and has been the epicenter of many earth tremors over the ages. After the devastating earthquake of 1861 which claimed between 4000 and 6000 lives (depending on whose history you read!), the geography of the area was significantly changed, redirecting the river and undoubted erasing many archeological remains. In November 1936 and earthquake of 6 on the Richter scale had its epicenter in Barrancas, which caused no death or injury, and again in 1985 there was another killing 6 injuring 238 people, and destroying 12,500 homes, according to the figures provided by Los Andes newspaper. Another reaching 5 on the Richter scale hit in 2006 and it remains to this day an area of frequent seismic activity, the last tremor being in Jun 2012 which reached 5.4 Richters.

So at this river crossing point a community emerged. It was known as La Riojita before the name was changed to San Roque, certainly due to its first inhabitants being from La Rioja province. These people made their living helping people and their horses and wagons cross the river, there being no bridge.

This was the key to the emergence of the village and to the mentality of the people. To this day there is a proud exclusivity present among the inhabitants, which is reflected in the prices of some of the goods sold there – among the highest in Mendoza and perhaps the country for some products. It is the furthest point eastwards before crossing the river, so the highest prices can be justified by the tradesmen. (At least traditionally this was the argument, and the idea has never gone away.) This was legalized extortion albeit in a very mild form. There was undoubtedly an illegal side to this, with tradesmen and travelers undoubtedly held-up and menaced, perhaps robbed or worse, all evening and night before being to cross the river the next morning. This is a tradition which has remained in one way or another since the infamous “viveza criolla” or creole wiliness would have been an essential part of making a living for past generations. The present day inhabitants have this in their blood perhaps in even higher concentrations than the average average Mendocinian.

The key piece of forgotten history, and the true claim to fame for this sleepy little settlement, is that in that on 7th September 1814 General San Martin, The Liberator of South America (a title shared with Bolivar in the North), The Father of the Argentinian Fatherland, along with his Army of The Andes, crossed the river at this precise point on his journey from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, before crossing the Andes and defeating the last of those Imperialists fighting for the Spanish Crown. Exaggeratedly exulted across the whole country, San Martin commands patriotic fevour and a near monopoly on names of main roads, schools, and plazas. In San Róque there is not even a whisper of his passing and this famous event. In the plaza through which the Generalissimo and his army marched, infantry soaked up to their necks from the recent river crossing, there is no homage; not even a small plaque of remembrance. They stayed overnight in a winery (still operational today)* further west in the hamlet of Santa Blanca, where there is a rusty old sign noting the place of as a point of interest on the route San Martin. San Róque and their inhabitants, however, are mute. Perhaps resentful of the upstarts from elsewhere coming though without needing help the crossing and paying their dues for using the pass. The liberators of South America were Invaders who didn’t pay the river tax, and therefore ignored and forgotten in this proud and peaceful place.

As the village flourished there was of course other ways employed to pursue a living, and being in Mendoza this means principally wine production and olive oil making as well as the planting of crops. San Róque is the location for many small wineries. On the original village square where the church is there are 2 wineries. The 1st is a delightful small scale family-run establishment, Mi Terruño, who’s previous owners own a ceramic factory, and have  decorated the place with millions of small multicoloured tiles. It is a pleasure to see the place as well a be shown around on a private tour that any visitors are enthusiastically given. If you are in luck you can be given a taste of that year’s the freshly made product, with the guide dipping a wineglass into the top of the tank of the wine not yet on the market. A special treat perhaps unheard-of in most of the wine producing world. The 2nd winery is more exclusive still. Ran by the family owners the wine is 100% organic and made in such modest quantities that there are no signs outside. Clients are the local friends and friends of friends and lucky few who have found out about the place. As you must take your empty glass beer bottle to buy beer in kiosks and shops, so clients turn up with their empty damajuanas (5 lltre flagons), to have them filled up as they wait outside of turn car around. The other clients of the bodega are a certain number of lucky, and presumably wealthy, private medical patients from Mendoza city center, whose doctors prescribe the wine for its medicinal benefits.

It is a place steeped in history, living in a rural world privileged to be distinct from the chaotic modern world, yet very much still a part of it. Let us hope it will not be long before all come to find out for themselves what this idyllic island of tradition can offer to them. The more footprints the better.