Argentina // Mendoza and El Cuyo //

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 algarrobosretamospencasjarillas 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.