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. Getting to the sites by public transport is awkward – if you don’t have your own car, your best bet is to go on a tour from Neuquén. These vary, but generally visit several sites of paleontological interest, some combining with winery stopoffs.
Museo Ernesto Bachmann
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 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.
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 10m-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.
Museo Carmen Funes
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 is based on educated guesswork.
Heading northwest from Neuquén 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 (proyectodino.com). 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.
Museo Argentino Urquiza
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, whose collection features the only known fossils of a titanosaurus, including an almost complete specimen. There is also a set of fossilized 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.