Valle de la Luna – the One in Argentina
Our tour through the Ischigualasto Provincial Park started on a dusty car park near the entrance gate. I had pulled Berta to the side to allow smaller cars to line up ahead of us for the convoy to start at midday. Stop! Did I just write ‘convoy’? Let me back-pedal a little with some general information.
Located east of Ruta Nacional 40 and west of the city of La Rioja in Argentina, are two significant parks which are recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. These listings are in part to preserve the outstanding landscape features, but predominantly to protect fossil sites within the parks; remains of significant dinosaur populations have been discovered in both.
When we came into the region we were seriously strapped for cash – we had something like 700 Pesos between us ~ under $70! It’s a long story, but basically we were having problems accessing cash from ATMs, and many places in Argentina, particularly outside major cities, don’t accept credit card, including these two parks.
From internet research we found that the Talampaya National Park was simply out of our budget, but that we could stretch our Pesos for a visit to the Ischigualasto Provincial Park. [More information at the bottom!]
We can only speculate why neither park permits individual visits and insists on guided tours. It might have to do with the fragile environment, or it could be that some visitors have completely disrespected park rules, but most likely this regulation is in place to protect future scientific research at possible dinosaur locations, to secure undisturbed excavation sites. From friends we have heard that other parks in Argentina enforce similar rules – not our perfect idea for visiting and exploring a national park!
So finally, there we were, lining up for a ranger guided tour through the Ischigualasto Provincial Park. The convoy consisted of 5 small cars and our camper, with the ranger occupying a seat in the leading vehicle. I had opted to be at the end of the line because our truck creates a lot more dust than other vehicles, but one Argentinean couple, travelling in a small Renault Kangoo camper conversion, always managed to fall in behind us…
The drive was mostly quite slow, with stops where the ranger took his time explaining things and answering questions. We were rather lucky in two ways: our particular ranger talked relatively slowly and clearly so that, even with our very limited Spanish, we both understood a fair bit of what he said. Whilst waiting to start the tour, we had chatted with an Argentinean on the parking lot who spoke good English and was part of our tour. He also helped us out with English translations when he could.
There are 5 stops along the drive:
1. El Gusano [The Worm]– here we saw typical layered rock structures, where the ranger explained a little about the geological formation of the landscape, and finally pointed out a small fossil imprint of a fern leaf.
2. Valle Pintado [Painted Valley] – an overlook which presents the variously coloured sediment layers of the park very well. The ranger explained the time periods when each layer was deposited and told us that the greyish layer yielded the most significant dinosaur finds.
3. Cancha de Bocha [Ball Court] – first we saw one of the more impressive stone structures, fittingly named the “Sphinx”. Behind it a path leads to the actual Cancha de Bocha, where many round balls of different sizes lay in the sand. It was interesting to learn that these balls were shaped solely by erosion, both through water and wind. For that they appear to be almost perfectly round…
4. Submarino [Submarine] – this large rock structure reminded us a little of similar towers in the Bryce Canyon in Utah/USA. It was also created by wind erosion, wearing down the layers of rock and mud which are all of different hardness.
5. El Hongo [The Mushroom] – we drove on and on, slowly coming closer and closer to the magnificent red cliffs we had been able to see the whole way in the distance. The last stop is at a single towering rock – the Mushroom. We didn’t find it overly impressive, but were totally awed by the cliffs. Since leaving the USA we hadn’t seen anything similar!
From this final stop, everybody is allowed to drive at their own pace back to the ranger station, although you’re not allowed to leave the path. So we took our time and enjoyed the scenery at our usual slow pace. When we arrived, after spending almost 3 hours for the entire trip, some fellow convoy participants were just emerging from the restaurant…
We are glad that we visited this park; our initial reservations about travelling in a convoy were unfounded as our particular group was quite small, and the people were very nice and relaxed.
Additional practical information for Ischigualasto Provincial Park & Talampaya National Park
The Dinosaur skeletons and other fossils from Ischigualasto Provincial Park are at the historical museum of the University in San Juan; unfortunately this museum seems to have been closed for many years.
Ischigualasto Provincial Park is also called “Valle de la Luna” [Moon Valley], this being one out of three in South America. We have visited “Valle de la Luna” near San Pedro de Atacama in Chile before, the third is in Bolivia (a future destination of dare2go). To me the one in Chile looks more moon-like because there the high salt content in the ground prevents any vegetation from growing.
Best time to visit: the ranger pointed out that during summer the daytime temperatures can be as high as mid forties Centigrade (~above 110º F). We visited in early June; at that time of the year daytime temperatures are cool to pleasant with sunny days, but nights are often below freezing. In late spring, after Andean snow melt, many access roads might be impassable due to flooding. December to March is the rain season in the north of Argentina. This leaves Southern hemisphere autumn to early winter as the best time to visit.
As the stunning red cliffs face west to south-west a visit in the afternoon will give you better light to photograph them (and at the same time probably higher temperatures).
Entrance fee was 160 Pesos per person (in June 2015), the described guided tour included.
Bonus: the ranger station offers free but slow-ish WiFi.
The Talampaya National Park seems to be very near when you look at a map, but it’s roughly 100 kilometres by road one way from one entrance to the next. Tours there are much more pricey, starting at 335 Pesos (June 2015) per Person – all tours seem to be run by private concessionaires. Our French friends went despite this, and all they were allowed to do, for their 120 Pesos basic entrance fee, was to drive in company of a ranger to the entrance of the canyon, get out of their vehicle and take some photos – no excursion into the canyon, no unsupervised walks!
There are camping facilities in the Talampaya National Park, none in the Ischigualasto Provincial Park. We stayed overnight behind the tourist information in Los Baldecitos.
Links for further research:
Encyclopaedia of the Earth about both parks (recommended reading)
UNESCO page about both parks , highlighting their importance (long, but very interesting and informative)
Official website of Ischigualasto Park
Entrance Prices at Talampaya National Park
Tours at Talampaya National Park