Ischigualasto and Talampaya are two adjacent natural parks straddling an Argentine regional border. Together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not an easy place to get to though; it’s 160km away from the nearest large town, La Rioja, and 430km away from Mendoza, so quite the road-trip for us. We allowed two days, but it still meant we had a tight schedule, leaving first thing on a Thursday morning and getting back Friday evening.
The first third of the driving was mundane as we headed north from Mendoza towards San Juan. It was only when we turned east, away from San Juan, that the journey began to get interesting. We left the Route Nationale and entered the desert.
Quite abruptly, you no longer see trees by the roadside. Instead you have wide plains of low, scrub-like vegetation, broken by occasional rocky hills. As you get deeper, you see more of the tall tree-like cacti that always signify deserts in cartoons and western movies. The road tracks dead-straight across the plains.
There is evidence of dramatic seasonal movement of water, most obvious in the places where the road would ford a river. Now, in the early summer, there would be a small stream barely wetting the wide concrete dip in the road. However, looking at the dimensions of the dip, and the river channels to either side, they could clearly handle a much larger volume of water.
The land is all quite soft and sandy, so prone to being washed away. In both the excursion from Salta and our later trip into the Andes from Mendoza, we were diverted onto a temporary road because the main route had washed out during the winter. In some cases this involved the shifting of substantial terrain. One can only imagine the volume and power of the water which flows across these landscapes in a storm.
Away from the designated rivers, there were lots of areas where the plain had been eroded into channels. The road would just continue straight on across it though, leading to a rollercoaster-like ride, sometimes quite precipitous. These areas were signed as Zonas de Badenes (loosely translates to “Bumpy Areas”) but which we christened, “Zones of Badness,” as the fun element of it quickly wore off when you were driving at speed.
As well as signs of water erosion, we also encountered a small cyclone. It erupted without warning at the side of the road, whipping up a column of dust and moving across the road in front of us before collapsing again in the field on the other side. I’d never seen a twister before and was quite excited by it!
We arrived at Ischigualasto in the early afternoon and had to race to join up with a tour that had just left. You tour the park in your own vehicle, following a ranger’s van to the designated stops where they talk about the landscape. The park is all about colourful sedimentary layers, exposed by erosion, the whole backed by a dramatic line of tall, red-sandstone cliffs. The area is known colloquially as the Valley of the Moon for good reason. It is almost completely barren and, in places, could pass for a lunar landscape; dry, dusty and grey.
Ischigualasto is also an area of special scientific interest, preserving an extensive sequence of Triassic Period fossils (that is the period covering the advent of both mammals and the dinosaurs.) In the park, there is a visitor centre which displays a mock-up of how archaeologists excavate and preserve the fossils, as well as information on the park’s formation. It really is a huge geological mish-mash – but that is the source of the variety of rock formations and coloured layering which makes it such an attraction to non-fossil-hunting visitors.
The next morning, we were up before the sun to get from our accommodation in Villa San Agustín to Talampaya for its 8am opening. It was another beautiful drive across the desert plain, the sun just warming the tops of the red sandstone hills on the horizon. We encountered more animal life in the cool of the early morning; chickens by the roadside, horses with foals and a wild llama, browsing on the vegetation.
We reached the visitor centre as they were beginning to open up and had time to enjoy both the views on this clear sunny morning and the absolute, enveloping peace of the place. It is surrounded by flat desert, the low, red hills on the horizon in one direction and a snow-capped peak in the other. The silence was profound. It was one of those perfect moments. I could have stood there, bathed in that blissful sensation all day.
Over the course of the following hour, the facilities opened up, the people camping nearby began to emerge and more visitors arrived. We booked on the morning tour, but still had time for a leisurely breakfast and a while sitting on the deck again, appreciating nature.
At 09:30 we set off in a minibus on a dirt track towards the distant hills, encountering a couple of the local animal inhabitants along the way; first a wild Mara (larger relative of the Guinea Pig) and later a desert fox. It was a bumpy, ride to the canyons that are the feature of Talampaya, but they were worth the discomfort. The first things you encounter are just sheer sandstone cliffs, over 100m high. They look hand-finished in places, they are so smooth, worn away by aeons of water and wind into vertical faces, occasionally broken by columnar chimneys indicating pre-historic waterfalls. In places, you can see petroglyphs inscribed by ancient indigenes.
Passing beyond the canyon, you get to areas where the rock is more exposed and has been weathered into spires (the Cathedral) and freestanding towers (the Totem, Tower and Monk.) From here you get more magnificent views out over the scrub to the sandstone mesas that dot the landscape. It was a worthwhile early morning.
Travelling back towards Mendoza, there was one final breath-taking moment which will stay with me. Exiting the Valle Fertil, you climb over some low hills as the road heads south and west. There was a point where we turned as we crested the hill and I was suddenly presented with the scene of a vast, flat plain, stained white, green and grey by low vegetation, stretching out to the distant horizon. There were those red sandstone hills again, framing the picture, now reflecting the afternoon sunlight. It was such a thing of beauty.
Although it was a demanding couple of days, I am really glad we made the effort to visit Talampaya and Ischigualasto. It was one of the highlights of the trip so far.