Other than producing delicious wine, Argentinean provinces La Rioja and San Juan are known for two remarkable parks. Ischigualasto and Talampaya National Park contain a unique fossil record of the Triassic Period, often called the Age of the Dinosaurs. The desert area also hosts the annual Dakar Rally.
Our base town for exploring both parks was Villa Union in La Rioja. Coming from Cafayate, that meant an eight hour drive through the Cuyo – Argentina’s wine-making region. Compared to the spectacular scenery in Salta and Jujuy, this drive was rather uneventful. Except for one nerve-breaking moment towards the end. Try driving backwards on a narrow mountain pass, with the abyss below and a raging thunderstorm above. Once again, my dad proved to be an excellent driver and didn’t even blink. For a moment, I was happy that my driver’s license was stolen in Buenos Aires.
Talampaya National Park
Ischigualasto and Talampaya National Park are separated by no more than the San Juan-La Rioja provincial border. Nonetheless, the scenery differs greatly. Although both parks can be visited in one day, we spread them out over two. In these temperatures, an afternoon by the pool of Hotel Pircas Negras was just too inviting. We headed to Talampaya first thing in the morning. At the entrance, you’re welcomed onto the Sendero del Triasico or Track of the Triassic.
The only way to visit Talampaya is on a guided tour. The tour won’t leave until the minimum group size is attained. That took about two Quilmes and a coffee.
We opted for the open-top bus, which comes with a nice touch. In the middle of a dried-up river bed, wine and snacks are served. Sit back, relax and let the majestic landscape sink in with a cup of pinot.
The bus makes several stops, including one at a series of petroglyphs. The rock carvings prove that the area was inhabited by more than just dinosaurs, albeit 200 million years later.
Millions of years of erosion have turned the red rocks into pieces of art. Just like the rock formations in Quebrada de las Conchas, they all have names. Below are the Monk and his Cathedral.
Talampaya’s scenery is truly unique. It’s hard to picture that this dry land used to be a fertile area, dominated by dinosaurs. 200 million years later, we had to settle for a family of nandu.
Valle de la Luna
Seventy kilometers south of Talampaya awaits Ischigualasto, better known as Valle de la Luna. The park may be called Moon Valley, it definitely comes closer to the sun. The climate is so hot and dry that the wind feels like its coming from a hairdryer. At the time of our visit, people were preparing for the first rain in over a year. The contrast with the Triassic Period couldn’t be greater, when this was a giant lake populated by a variety of fauna and flora. That is exactly what makes this area into a paleontological treasure.
The small museum at the entrance displays replicas of the fossils that were found in the park. Just like Talampaya, Valle de la Luna can only be visited on a guided tour. Here you go on the tour in your own vehicle, lined up in a convoy with the park ranger up front.
Valle Pintado or Painted Valley is what gave the park its nickname Valle de la Luna. Each colored sediment layer stands for a different time period, forming an impressive lunar landscape altogether.
The Cancha de Bochas or Bowling Field only adds to the out-of-this world feel. Molecular attraction caused different particles of sediment to group together, creating these spheres. Up to date, there’s no solid explanation on how they got their round shapes.
The next stops are spectacular stone sculptures, created over millions of years. Because some layers are stronger than others, distinct rock formations are shaped. The first one is a clear sphinx.
The submarine is next, one of the signature images of Valle de la Luna. Merely six months after our visit, the submarine lost one of its periscopes. That reminds us of how these landscapes keep evolving, although change is usually not observed within the span of a human life.
The last stop on the tour features on most postcards. El Hongo or The Mushroom balances in front of the red cliffs, bringing about a spectacular sight.
From El Hongo it goes back to the entrance, with the impressive red cliffs towering above the road. We found out that the Dakar Rally had just passed through San Juan a day before our visit. Driving in a caravan on this rough terrain, we felt like participants for a moment.
From Valle de la Luna, we continued our trip south to the city of San Juan. One remarkable but somewhat creepy stop on this route deserves a mention. La Difunta Correa is a place of worship for many Argentinean truck drivers. The sanctuary was created for the Deceased Correa, who died from thirst and exhaustion in the San Juan desert. She miraculously managed to keep her newborn alive for days after her death through breastfeeding. Every year, thousands of drivers leave empty water bottles and license plates on the grave of their proclaimed saint.