Willy Rojas: the Guardian Angel of Cajon de Maipo Travelers
The Chilean people, while not being overwhelmingly religious in modern culture, have deep roots in the Christian faith, with 54% of the population identifying as Roman Catholic. This is evident by the solemn dedication the Chilean people have toward honoring the dead. While traveling through the Chilean countryside in a winding road up into the Andes Mountain Range, or along the desert freeway between Calama and San Pedro de Atacama, you can spot roadside memorials located at a site where a person died suddenly, unexpectedly, and away from home. The tradition of these “animitas,” as they are called in Chile, is significant, as families and friends often return to the altars with offerings for their loved ones, and even strangers to the deceased will lay gifts at the altars for safe passage.
I recently encountered one of the largest animitas I have ever seen on a trip to Cajon del Maipo. En route to this region in the Andes Mountains, we took a road that follows the twisting Maipo River. About ten miles from the town of San Jose de Maipo, we arrived at the Tinoco Tunnel, a dark, 2000-foot tunnel off the two-lane freeway without electric lights. We walked through the pitch black tunnel, and on the other side was the massive altar dedicated to Willy Rojas.
Willy Rojas was an 18 year old student of Universidad de Chile who loved music and played soccer for the university. He was known for being an intelligent, talented student with a strong sense of social justice. In his early teenage years, he became close to one of his classmates, with whom he eventually fell in love. After his first year of university, he confessed his deep feelings of young love to her, and she rejected him.
Feeling hopeless, Willy drove along the Maipo River, where he always felt close to nature. On his way into the Cajon del Maipo region, he entered the Tinoco Tunnel, which is perpetually dark, even at high noon. Willy arrived in the evening, armed with alcohol, and he parked in the middle of the tunnel, where he proceeded to get fully inebriated. He wrote a letter to his loved ones, where he urged them to visit the Andes Mountain Range. Then, late at night on July 20, 1998, he died by suicide with a bullet to the head.
The Rojas family was devastated, and to commemorate Willy’s tragic, unexpected death, built the animita for Willy at the exit of the tunnel. They lovingly placed photos of Willy, a cross, pinwheels, and a few of his favorite things, including some sports memorabilia. His parents left a message carved in stone at the altar:
“For us, Willy speaks through the pinwheels.
Please, never silence them.
Since the construction of the animita, members of the communities in Cajon del Maipo and travelers alike have taken Willy Rojas as a guardian angel of the road. They have left soccer jerseys of the Universidad de Chile team, Chilean flags, flowers, and pinwheels as offerings to Willy for safe travel up to Cajon del Maipo.
If you are interested in visiting Chile to learn more about this unique culture, contact us about one of our Chile itineraries.