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Of Clay and Sand

Of Clay and Sand

Chronicles of the dessert in Lavalle, part 1

As we leave from the oases of the city of Mendoza, we start to appreciate a metamorphosis. The mountain moves away, the soil becomes dry and thirsty. The vegetation becomes scarce, time gets to a standstill to nurture from mysteries and legends.

Barely irrigated and with an annual precipitation of only 89 mm, Lavalle shows as the driest county in Mendoza. 90% of its territory dresses as infertile barrenness and its desert landscape becomes more evident just as we enter dirt tracks and parts of its desolated mount. With very few people, especially in the dry lands, where the density of the population gets to .33 inhabitants per square kilometer, this territory served as shelter for Huarpes, gauchos, bandits and wondering souls. Its town and landscape are catchy and propose a must do visit to both locals and visitors.

Capilla de Asunción, Mariana Gomez Rus

It is hard to imagine that, up to no longer than a century ago, in this area of cracked terrain, there were about twenty interlinked lagoons which were navigated by the natives (the lacustrine Huarpes). This was done in boats made of reeds and cattail, similar to the ones used by the Uros at Titicaca Lake. It is hard to imagine this area as a prosperous and fertile one, where natives would enter with their heads into a hollow pumpkin, and water up to their necks, waiting for a naïve duck to descend on the lagoon in its quest for food and snap!!! Surprised and taken by the neck the hungry duck became the food for the Huarpe. Nowadays when you look at them, it is hard to imagine that they were full of good size of fish and that it was even sold at the city of Mendoza. From those times only remain the chronicles, objects and some representation in a scale model at the foundational area museum of the city.

Naturally, Guanacache Lagoons (1) were fed by water from Mendoza and San Juan rivers. Afterwards, when the courses of the rivers were interfered for human, irrigation and industrial use, the intake of water into the lagoons became scarcer, reducing the lakes dramatically. Guanacache nowadays forms an exceptional landscape, and paradoxically, with vegetation on one side, and dessert on the other. Otters and flamingos that made of this place their home, are endangered if all the water evaporates. Currently the underground waters gushing onto the surface shyly feed the lagoons (besides some occasional summer storm) but what is true is that they never recovered the splendor they had some time in their history. Since 1999 they are RAMSAR site and are part of the 20 protected wetlands that we may find nowadays in Argentina.

Laguna de Guanacache

Of the productive area of Lavalle, nearly 60% of the surface is destined to grape production. Even though it is not the most popular grape growing area (like Luján de Cuyo or Valle de Uco) the Lavalle people take advantage of great natural weather conditions, favoring in this context the production of artisanal wine (2). In fact, the elaboration of this style of wine is so prolific that Lavalle has its own association of artisanal wine producers, a collective project whose synergy allows producers to promote and market their wines both in Mendoza and the rest of the country.

Handcrafted wine made at Finca Cosmos

Life in the Lavallean mount is not easy. To the scarcity of water, we have to add the indiscriminated depredation of the native flora, especially of small carob tree forests, which disappeared through the centuries. Thus, the cutting down (for timber, railroad sleepers, coal production and vineyard poles) desertified and modified the natural and social landscape of Lavalle. This motivated the creation of Telteca Natural Reservation in 1980 (3) with the objective of preserving the autochthonous flora, especially the carob tree forests (4) that were saved from eradication, as well as chañares, chilca, jarilla and alpataco plants. Telteca is also the shelter for feline animals, birds and small reptiles. The whole territory of the reservation is 38 thousand hectares big, housing one desert place called “Altos Limpios”, a kind of mini Sahara, whose sandy formations may reach a height of 20 meters in some areas. Easily recognizable from the road, about 100 km north east of the city of Mendoza, this place is definitely a good reason to stop for photo safari or for a horse riding or hiking in the sand. The quicksand hides legends and stories, like that of Dragui Lucero’s “Hachador de los Altos Limpios”, the spirit of an eyeless man who wanders at night, terrorizing the dwellers of the desert.

Telteca, Mariana Gómez Rus

Scattered between the Lagunas del Rosario, San José and Asunción, there are some direct  descendants of the native Huarpe community, who day in and out, fight the lack of water and resources. They grow goats, some farming and do handicrafts in which we may find basketry and braided leather goods, legacy of previous generations.

Below layers of sand, Lavalle humbly guards an endless number of experiences braided between Christian and pagan, cultural and natural, architectonic and forgotten. Its silences and landscapes, even though, close they seem to be an abyss away from our everyday in the cement jungle.

To be continued…

  • Huanacache, in Huarpe Milkayac language means “Man who looks to the descending water”
  • Telteca in Huarpe Milkayac language means “mature fruit”
  • According to the INV, artisanal or home made wine is a denomination given to producers of less than 4000 liters of wine, normally in the garage of a house
  • The carob tree is a tree native to Argentina. Since ancestral times it has been the shade, food, beverage, medicine, wood, coal and coloring compounds to dye fabrics of the desert dwellers. Besides, this tree has a pheatophyte root, which searches for water in the underground.

By Mariana Gomez Rus

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