San Juan and La Rioja provinces boast two of the most-photographed protected areas in the country, which together have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs. In San Juan is Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, better known as Valle de la Luna – Moon Valley – because of its out-of-this-world landscapes and apocryphal legends. The province has jealously resisted repeated attempts to turn it into a national park, and the authorities are doing a good job of providing easy access and looking after the fragile environment. While he was in office, President Menem, on the other hand, made sure that his native province of La Rioja got its first national park: Parque Nacional Talampaya, best known for its giant red-sandstone cliffs, which are guaranteed to impress even the most jaded traveller. It’s also the country’s best example of desert monte scrub – a vulnerable ecosystem with rare fauna and flora, and the only habitat endemic to Argentina.
While you can visit both parks in the same day from either Villa Unión in La Rioja or the more appealing town of San Agustín de Valle Fértil in northeastern San Juan Province, you can get more from the parks by splitting your visits; Talampaya especially merits a longer visit. In many ways it is wise to go to Talampaya in the morning, when the sun lights up the coloured rocks and illuminates the canyon, whereas Ischigualasto is far more impressive in the late afternoon and at sunset in particular. If possible avoid the gruelling day-trips offered from San Juan, or even La Rioja.