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.
Parque Provincial Ischigualasto
Parque Provincial Ischigualasto
Some 80km north of Valle Fértil, the PARQUE PROVINCIAL ISCHIGUALASTO, also known as the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, is San Juan’s most famous feature by far, covering nearly 150 square kilometres of desolate but astonishingly varied terrain.
For paleontologists, Ischigualasto’s importance is primarily as a rich dinosaur burial ground: two of the world’s very oldest species of dinosaur, the diminutive Euraptor lunesis and Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis, both dating back some 230 million years, were found here, among many others. The park is also a joy for geologists, as most strata of the 45-million-year Triassic era are on plain view.
The park is in a desert valley between two ranges of high mountains, the Sierra Los Rastros to the west and Cerros Colorados to the east. As witnessed by the mollusc and coral fossils found in the cliffsides, for a long time the whole area was under water. Over the course of millions of years the terrain has been eroded by wind and water, and sections built of volcanic ash have taken on a ghostly greyish-white hue. A set of red-sandstone mountains to the north acts as a perfect backdrop to the paler stone formations and clay blocks, all of which are impressively illuminated in the late evening.
At the entrance, an excellent museum exhibits some wonderful stories of forensic paleontology, unravelling some curious examples of dinosaur death (Spanish only) – useful while you wait for a tour.
The majority of visitors come to admire the spectacular lunar landscapes that give the park its popular nickname, and the much publicized and alarmingly fragile rock formations – some have already disappeared, the victims of erosion and the occasional flash floods that seem to strike with increasing frequency. Cerro El Morado (1700m), a barrow-like mountain that according to local lore is shaped like an Indian lying on his back, dominates the park to the east. A segmented row of rocks is known as El Gusano (the Worm); a huge set of vessel-like boulders is known as El Submarino; a sandy field dotted with cannon-ball-shaped stones is dubbed the Cancha de Bolas (the Ball-court). One famous formation, painfully fragile on its slender stalk, is El Hongo (the Mushroom), beautifully set off against the red sandstone cliffs behind.
Another of the park’s attractions is its wealth of flora and fauna. The main plant varieties are the native broom-like brea, three varieties of the scrawny jarilla, both black and white species of algarrobo, the chañar, retamo and molle shrubs and four varieties of cactus. Animals that you are likely to spot here include European hares, Patagonian hares, the vizcacha, the grey fox, armadillos and small rodents, plus several species of bat, frog, toad, lizard and snake. Condors and ñandús are often seen, too, while guanacos may be spotted standing like sentinels atop the rocks, before scampering off.
Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya
The entrance to PARQUE NACIONAL TALAMPAYA is 55km down the RN-76 from Villa Unión, and then along a signposted road to the east. Coming from the south, it’s 93km north of Ischigualasto and 190km from Valle Fértil. The park’s main feature is a wide-bottomed canyon flanked by 180m-high, rust-coloured sandstone cliffs, so smooth and sheer that they look as if they were sliced through by a giant cheese-wire. Another section of the canyon is made up of rock formations that seem to have been created as part of a surreal Gothic cathedral. Added attractions are the presence of several bird species, including condors and eagles, as well as rich flora and some pre-Columbian petroglyphs. The park’s name comes from the indigenous peoples’ words ktala – the locally abundant tala bush – and ampaya, meaning dry riverbed. Avoid Easter if possible, when the park is at its busiest; the middle of the day in the height of summer, when it can be unbearably hot; and the day after a storm, when the park closes because of floods. The zonda wind can also cause the park to close. In midwinter, it can be bitterly cold. The best time of day by far to visit is soon after opening, when the dawn light deepens the red of the sandstone.
Talampaya’s cliffs appear so frequently on national tourism promotion posters and in coffee-table books, you think you know what you’re getting before you arrive. But no photograph really prepares you for the belittling feeling you have when standing at the foot of a massive rock wall, where the silence is shattered only by the wind. Even the classic shots of orange-red precipices looming over what looks like a toy jeep, included for scale, don’t really convey the astonishment. The national park, covering 215 square kilometres, was created in 1997 to protect the canyon and all its treasures. Geologically it’s part of the Sierra Los Colorados, whose rippling mass you can see in the distance to the east. The sandstone cliffs were formed at the beginning of the Triassic period, nearly 250 million years ago, and have gradually been eroded by torrential rain and various rivers that have exploited geological faults in the rock, the reason why the cliffs are so sheer.
The rock paintings and jardín botánico
The rock paintings and jardín botánico
Just south of the entrance to the canyon, huge sand dunes have been swept up by the strong winds that frequently howl across the Campo de Talampaya to the south. The higgledy-piggledy rocks at the foot of the cliffs host a gallery of white, red and black rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area around a thousand years ago. The pictures include animals such as llamas, suris and pumas, a stepped pyramid, huntsmen and phallic symbols, and the nearby ink-well depressions in the rock are formed by decades of grinding and mixing pigments. There is a huge tacu, or carob tree, here, thought to be more than one thousand years old. Inside the canyon proper, the so-called jardín botánico, or more accurately the bosquecillo – thicket – is a natural grove of twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees. They include algarrobos, retamos, pencas, jarillas and chañares, all labelled; occasionally grey foxes and small armadillos lurk in the undergrowth and brightly coloured songbirds flit from branch to branch. Nearby, and clearly signposted, is the Chimenea (chimney), also known as the Cueva (cave) or the Canaleta (drainpipe), a rounded vertical groove stretching all the way up the cliffside; guides revel in demonstrating its extraordinary echo, which sends condors flapping.
Wonderfully shaped formations in the park have been given imaginative names, mostly with a religious slant, but many of them do fit. El Pesebre (Crib) is a set of rocks supposed to resemble a Nativity scene, and appropriately nearby are Los Reyes Magos, the Three Kings, one of them on camel-back. A cluster of enormous needles and pinnacles is known as La Catedral – the intricate patterns chiselled and carved by thousands of years of erosion have been compared variously with Albi cathedral or the facade of Strasbourg cathedral, both built of a similar red sandstone. A set of massive rock formations is known as El Tablero de Ajedrez, or the Chessboard, complete with rooks, bishops and pawns, while a 53m-high monolith, resembling a cowled human figure is El Cura, the Priest, or El Fraile, the Monk, depending on whom you ask. El Pizarrón, or the Blackboard, is 15m of flat rock-face of darker stone etched with more suris, pumas, guanacos and even a seahorse – suggesting that the peoples who lived here a thousand years ago had some kind of contact with the ocean.
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