The sun is setting fast behind our backs when we arrive at the highlight of Parque Ischigualasto: the Hongo, an enormous mushroom-shaped rock formation, with the steep cliffs in the background which appear deep red at this time of day. It has been a long day and for a moment, it looked like visiting the park would be impossible, but now, a deep sense of satisfaction comes over me. I am especially happy that we are at this spot at the best time of the day: the rays of the setting sun give the landscape around me that beautiful touch which makes it so much more intense than during the day. From the Hongo, we drive the unpaved road through rugged landscapes back to the visitor centre, and when I get off, it is dark, and a cold wind makes it unpleasant to stay outside. A tiny sliver of moon appears in the sky above me. The souvenir stalls are packing up: people are on their way out. I re-visit the information centre where I learn more about the dinosaurs that have made Ischigualasto famous: the oldest fossils of the extinct animals from the Triassic period have been found here, and research still goes on. The area happens to be perfect for discoveries of fossils: seismic activity pushes plates to the surface of the earth, and the arid landscape does not play havoc on the ancient remains of plants and animals. A one hour ride brings me back to San Agustín del Valle Fértil, the erstwhile base for exploring the natural wonders of the area. It is finally time for something to eat, and re-think this day.
Earlier on, when I arrived in San Agustín del Valle Fértil from San Juán, I soon discover that visiting the Parque Provincial Ischigualasto will be more difficult than I had imagined. According to my information, it should be the base for visiting Ischigualasto and other great natural places of interest, but the completion of a road to the west means that most visitors now bypass the quiet village with its disproportionate number of accommodation and restaurants, and arrive on their own wheels. Even though it is winter holiday season in Argentina, there are no other visitors for the park in the village. I try hitchhiking, but the very few cars that come by do not stop - visitors take the new road on the other side of the mountain range to the west of San Agustín. The town seems to have lost its function as the jumping off point for Ischigualasto. But the information centre on the central plaza is still open the entire day until just before midnight - they tell me that renting a vehicle is not possible either. It is thanks to the creative thinking of the guy running a hostel and transportation business that I find a solution. He drives me to the park, where I am added to a group of visitors who arrived in a big bus, and pay the price for a retiree - there is an unfriendly system in place where foreigners pay a much higher entrance fee than locals do. The guy seems to be happy to beat that system, and I am happy to play along.
After a brief visit to the information centre, my new friend from San Agustín comes to tell me that the minibus is ready: he even secures the front seat for me so I have the best views. It only takes minutes before we descend into the Ischigualasto area, which is also called the Valle de la Luna for its rugged, arid and desolate landscapes (and who knows, because some people have a problem pronouncing the original name which comes from an indigenous language?). We drive past the Worm, a rock formation which has lost parts of its body, and visit several points of interest. There is the Valle Pintado where rounded hills are layers of colours. The guide explains that the dry layer we see is dubbed elephant skin for the deep lines it has. At one point, we walk through an area where wind and water have sculpted weird rock formations, to arrive at Cancha de Bochas, a field where round balls lie: the guide explains how these were shaped underground in a long process. Visiting Ischigualasto means that you get a different feel of time: it is 180 million years ago that dinosaurs were running around - the oldest known remains of dinosaurs have been found here, which has earned it World Heritage status. When we drive up to the Submarino, the driver tells us that unfortunately, part of one of the most famous rock formations of Ischigualasto has succumbed to a combination of frequent seismic activity, ongoing erosion, and the strong zonda wind finally toppled one of the towers just days before. Surprisingly, a fragile tower is still standing: the only question now remaining is: how long will it be able to resist the forces that took down the other tower? A small orchestra is playing music right under it, and a couple is dancing tango on a platform. Close by is a circular building where a girl explains how dinosaur fossils are discovered and unearthed in a pit with sample fossils. From here, we are just in time to reach the Hongo before the sun sets.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Parque Ischigualasto (Argentina). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Parque Ischigualasto.
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