Central and northern Neuquén Province is an area of desert-like meseta and steppe, home to Argentina’s most important reserves of natural gas and petroleum and a major exporter of thermal and hydroelectric energy. The bustling provincial capital of NEUQUÉN sits at the confluence of the rivers Neuquén and Limay, whose waters unite to become the Río Negro. With a population of a quarter of a million or so, this plains metropolis functions as the commercial, industrial and financial centre of the surrounding region. It’s a surprisingly attractive and friendly place to pass a day or two, with a couple of museums as good as any other in the region. The city also makes a good base for visiting the area’s dinosaur-related attractions: the village of El Chocón has a world-class paleontology exhibit and some truly remarkable dinosaur footprints in situ by the turquoise-hued Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexía reservoir, while in Plaza Huincul you can see bones from the largest dinosaur ever discovered, the Argentinosaurus huinculensis. Further north at Lago Barreales you can watch paleontologists in action, while at Rincón de los Sauces, in the extreme north of the province, the world’s first fossilized dinosaur eggs were unearthed.
The dinosaur sites around Neuquén
The dinosaur sites around Neuquén
Since 1988, the area around Neuquén has become a hotbed of dinosaur fever, with paleontologists uncovering fossils of both the largest herbivorous sauropod and the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever found. As you cross the Neuquén environs en route for the sites of discovery it is easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming the stunted plains and pterodactyls launching themselves into the air from the imposing cliff-faces.
On the banks of the picturesque Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexía hydroelectric reservoir, 79km southwest of Neuquén along the RN-237, the little oasis of Villa El Chocón is home to the Museo Municipal Ernesto Bachmann where you can see a virtually complete, hundred-million-year-old skeleton of Giganotosaurus carolinii, discovered 18km away in 1993. This fearsome creature puts even Tyrannosaurus rex in the shade: it measured a colossal 13m long (its skull alone accounting for 1.8m), stood 4.7m tall and weighed an estimated eight tonnes. Cono Sur runs buses to El Chocón from the Neuquén bus terminal, but getting there and back in one day can be difficult, as departure and return times are inconvenient. If you find yourself stranded, the tourist office (t0299/490-1230) at the entrance to town can help you find family accommodation if necessary.
Three kilometres further south along the RN-237, a left turn-off leads another 2km down to the shores of Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexía. Here, at the northwest corner of the lake, is the Parque Cretácico, where you’ll find some huge, astonishingly well-preserved dinosaur footprints. Not realizing what they were, fishermen once used them as barbecue pits. The footprints resemble those of a giant rhea, but were probably left by an iguanadon – a ten-metre-long herbivore – or some kind of bipedal carnivore. Other kidney-shaped prints are of four-footed sauropods, and smaller prints were probably left by 3m-long theropods.
Plaza Huincul, just over 110km west of Neuquén along the RN-22, is where the region’s petroleum reserves were discovered in 1918. Memorabilia from those pioneering days is displayed at the Museo Carmen Funes on the main street, though you’ll find it impossible to concentrate on petroleum with the full-size reconstruction of Argentinosaurus huinculensis looming in the hangar next door. Walking between the legs of this beast – 40m long, 18m high and weighing 100 tonnes – is a bit like walking under a jumbo jet. The only fossils of this giant beast that have been found are the pelvis, tibia, sacrum and some vertebrae – the reconstruction of the rest of the animal is based on educated guesswork. From Neuquén, the easiest way to Plaza Huincul is on the Zapala bus from the terminal (Centenario, El Petróleo or Cono Sur hourly).
Heading northwest from Neuquén approximately 90km along the RP-51 or the RP-7 brings you to the shores of Embalse Cerros Colorados, where you can watch paleontologists at work on the “Dino Project” at Lago Barreales (0299/154-048614, www.proyectodino.com.ar). Considered a “complete ecosystem of the Mesozoic era”, the project, overseen by the University of Comahue, gives you the chance to help with the excavation. The most important finds are displayed at the on-site museum.
Further afield, 250km northwest of Neuquén along the RP-8, the isolated town of Rincón de los Sauces is home to the Museo Argentino Urquiza (0299/488-6643), whose collection features the only known fossils of a titanosaurus, including an almost complete specimen. What makes the trip worthwhile, however, are the fossilized set of titanosaur eggs from nearby Auca Mahuida: the first set of dinosaur eggs ever to be found, they are approximately 14cm in diameter and have thin, porous shells through which the embryonic dinosaurs are thought to have breathed.