San Juan and La Rioja provinces share some memorable countryside, with range after range of lofty mountains alternating with green valleys of olive groves, onion fields and vineyards, but they’re the poorer cousins, in every sense, of Mendoza Province. The provinces’ bodegas, for example, continue to take a back seat to those of Mendoza and San Rafael, even though their wine can be just as good and they export much of their grape harvest to Mendoza’s wineries. Tourism has not fully got off the ground here, either, partly owing to poor transport services. To engineer tourist circuits you’ll need your own transport, preferably a 4WD.
Outside the capital, La Rioja’s population density barely reaches one inhabitant per square kilometre, while San Juan, where the equivalent ratio is around three, is on average half as densely populated as Mendoza Province. Leaving the cities behind to scout around the outback, you’ll experience a real sense of setting off into uncharted territory. Some unpaved roads peter out into tracks barely passable in the hardiest jeep, and the weather conditions can be inclement. However, this inhospitable nature does offer up fantastic opportunities for alternative tourism, such as 4WD trips or hiking.
Club-sandwiched between the pre-cordillera and the two rows of cordillera – known as main and frontal ranges, a geological phenomenon unique to this section of the Andes – are successive chains of valleys. The higher ones over 1500m above sea level are known as the valles altos, of which the Valle de Calingasta is an outstanding example. Between them the two provinces have four natural parks. The highly inaccessible Parque Nacional San Guillermo in San Juan Province adjoins the Reserva Provincial Las Vicuñas across the boundary in La Rioja; respectively, they give you a sporting chance of spotting wild pumas and vicuñas, along with a host of other Andean wildlife, amid unforgettable landscapes. Further east are the provinces’ star attractions: Parque Nacional Talampaya, with vertiginous red cliffs that make you feel totally insignificant and – only 70km south – its contiguous, unidentical twin, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, more commonly referred to as the Valle de la Luna, an important dinosaur graveyard in a highly photogenic site.