There’s a correntino gaucho on every corner in Mercedes, which is also the gateway to the world-class wetlands of the Esteros del Iberá, an ecological jewel that occupies much of the province’s geographical center. Because of bus schedules to the marshes, travelers without their own vehicles often have to spend a night here.
Still, it’s worth a stay to appreciate one of Argentina’s most popular pilgrimage sites. The spontaneously colorful shrine to the gaucho Antonio Gil, a 19th-century Robin Hood (and popular saint) unjustly executed by provincial authorities, is nine kilometers west of town. Second only to San Juan’s Difunta Correa as a popular religious phenomenon, the Gauchito (the faithful use the affectionate diminutive) is rapidly gaining adherents.
Unlike the improbable Difunta, Gil really existed, even if the details of his legend get romanticized. In the 1850s, so the story goes, Gil was an army deserter who spent years on the run as he took from the rich and gave to the poor. When he was finally apprehended, the police hanged him from an espinillo tree; before dying, Gil warned that the sergeant in command would find his own son gravely ill, and the boy would recover only if the sergeant prayed for Gil’s soul.
When the boy recovered, the repentant sergeant carved a cross of espinillo and placed it at the site of Gil’s death. Every January 8—the anniversary of his death—up to 100,000 believers swarm to a site of chapels, comedores, and campgrounds decorated with hundreds upon hundreds of bright-red flags. So numerous as to close the highway, the pilgrims bring prized possessions to the Gauchito, whom they credit with miracles and life-changing experiences. In the process, they take away souvenirs, ranging from tiny red banners to near-life-size statues of Gil—a Christ in gaucho regalia—from a swarm of stands that make a major contribution to the local economy.
Over the past several years, the red flags that mark the Mercedes shrine have spread rapidly to roadside sites from Jujuy to Tierra del Fuego. Argentina’s economy may have rebounded, but the results have been uneven. Nearly a decade later, the perceived injustices of Argentina’s economic meltdown still seem to require a Robin Hood.
A newer attraction is the Centro de Interpretación de la Ciudad de Mercedes (Caá Guazú and José María Gómez), a small museum complex that’s open 8 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m. Monday–Friday and 2–6 p.m. Saturday–Sunday.
Accommodations and Food
In new quarters, the HI affiliate Hospedaje Delicias del Iberá (Dr. Rivas 688, tel. 03773/42-3167, deliciasdelibera [at] yahoo [dot] com [dot] ar, US$10 pp, US$26 d) has become a backpacker’s fixture on the trans-Chaco route from Salta to Iberá. The maintenance of the crumbling adobe is imperfect, though, and it lacks attention to detail.
Hotel El Sol (San Martín 519, tel. 03773/42-0283, US$21 s, US$32 d) has drawn raves for impeccable rooms in a 19th-century building with a family-run atmosphere.
The pick of accommodations is the Anglo-Argentine bed-and-breakfast La Casita de Ana (Mitre 924, tel. 03773/42-2671, manoscorrentinas [at] hotmail [dot] com, US$26 s, US$48 d). Set among lush subtropical gardens in a handsome adobe whose interior looks airlifted from England, rates include an abundant breakfast with muesli, fruit, and other goodies.
Food here is nothing special, but La Casa de Chirola (Avenida San Martín 2191, tel. 03773/42-0869) is a decent parrilla. Sabor Único (San Martín 1240, tel. 03773/42-0314) has above-average pastas and meats, with excellent service, and makes an effort at creating an innovative menu and an inviting atmosphere.
Getting to Mercedes
From Terminal Hipólito Yrigoyen (San Martín and Alfredo Perreyra) numerous buses pass through town en route to the provincial capital of Corrientes (3.5 hours, US$10) and to Buenos Aires (9 hours, US$30–43).
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition