Nicknamed “Valle de la Luna” for the lunar landscapes formed from its colorless clay, reddish sandstone, and black volcanic ash, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto also deserves to be called “Triassic Park” for fossil-rich sediments that have yielded dinosaur skeletons 228 million years old. Finds like the early predator Eoraptor lunensis, the Tyrannosaurus-like Herrerasaurus, and the herbivorous Riojasaurus have made Ischigualasto, together with nearby Parque Nacional Talampaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
About 80 kilometers northwest of San Agustín via newly paved RP 510 and smoothly paved RN 150, Ischigualasto encompasses 63,000 hectares of eroded sedimentary badlands between the easterly Cerros Colorados and the westerly Quebrada de los Jachalleros. RP 150 dead-ends about 15 kilometers to the west, and it’s likely to be some time before it reaches the last 35 kilometers or so to the junction with RN 40 and Jáchal.
Flora and Fauna
Rather than plants and animals, most visitors come to see whatever the sparse vegetation of hillside cacti and streambed shrubs and algarrobos doesn’t cover. In the withering summer heat, most wildlife is nocturnal, but there are guanacos, foxes, hares, rheas, and pumas as well as rodents, snakes, and other reptiles.
Sights and Recreation
All visits now begin with a tour of the outstanding Museo de Ciencias Naturales, a branch of the Universidad Nacional de San Juan with first-rate paleontology and dinosaur exhibits with well-trained guides from the university. Unfortunately, neither the guides nor the explanatory panels can handle English.
From the visitors center, museum guides accompany private vehicles and operators on the Circuito Vehicular, an unpaved 40-kilometer loop that covers most of the top sights. Most visitors without their own vehicles now contract day tours, which also take in Parque Nacional Talampaya, from San Agustín del Valle Fértil.
Here the two-hour excursion passes distinctive landforms such as the Cancha de Bochas (The Ball Court), El Esfinge (The Sphinx), El Gusano (The Worm), El Hongo (The Mushroom), and El Submarino (The Submarine)—all of which bear some resemblance to the objects from which they take their names. There are also bicycle and full-moon tours.
For alternative excursions such as the three-hour climb of the 1,748-meter Cerro Morado (US$5.50 pp), which gains about 800 meters en route to the solitary summit, local guides are obligatory.
Parque Provincial Ischigualasto (tel. 02646/49-1100) is open 9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily April 1–September 30, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily October 1–March 31.
Camping (US$1 pp) is permitted behind the museum, but there is no shade whatsoever; sparkling new bathrooms, built mainly to accommodate tour buses, include flush toilets, hot showers, and even disabled access, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water to wash and flush—that arrives on trucks.
The Confitería Dinosaurios provides above-average meals, cold beer, wine, and sodas, and regional products like olives and dried fruit. Alongside the ranger station, there are outdoor crafts stands.
Foreign visitors pay a US$10.50 entrance fee at the park’s Centro de Visitantes, which includes the museum and vehicular circuit; Argentines and other residents get a small discount.
The Thursday and Sunday Empresa Vallecito buses from San Juan to La Rioja stop at the Los Baldecitos checkpoint on RP 510, but that still leaves 17 kilometers to the visitors center and raises the question of getting around the circuit (which could be dangerous for hikers and cyclists in the unrelenting summer heat).
Visiting Ischigualasto without a vehicle may be possible, but a rental car or a tour certainly simplifies things. San Agustín’s Paula Tour (Tucumán s/n, tel. 02646/42-0096) and Turismo Veza (Mitre s/n, tel. 02646/42-0143) offer tours from Valle Fértil to both Ischigualasto and nearby Talampaya.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.