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.