It has taken time, but San Agustín del Valle Fértil seems finally poised to make its mark with international travelers. For weekend visitors from the searingly hot provincial capital, it has long been a refreshingly tranquil and hospitable “hill station,” but improved services and better roads have made it an almost ideal base for visiting Parque Provincial Ischigualasto  and La Rioja’s adjacent Parque Nacional Talampaya .
On San Juan’s eastern edge, San Agustín’s mountainous microclimate helps create a well-watered enclave of lush hills and valleys that seems a mirror image of the rest of this desert province. Founded in 1788, the town commemorates its anniversary on April 4.
On the eastern slopes of the sedimentary Sierras Pampeanas, San Agustín (pop. 4,000-plus) is 247 kilometers northeast of San Juan  via paved RN 141 and freshly paved RP 510, which continues to Baldecitos (the Ischigualasto  turnoff), beyond which it meets paved RP 26 to Parque Nacional Talampaya  and RN 150 toward La Rioja. Locals generally ignore street names, but it’s small and regular enough to make orientation easy.
Patricio Viajes (Mitre s/n, tel. 02646/42-0143) and Paula Tour (Tucumán s/n, tel. 02646/42-0096, www.paula-tour.com.ar ) offer excursions to Ischigualasto and Talampaya.
San Agustín’s main sights are archaeological: the petroglyphs of Piedra Pintada, about 300 meters over the Río Seco; the Morteros Indígenas (Indian Mortars) another 500 meters on; and the Meseta Ritual (Ritual Mesa), on the grounds of the Escuela Agrotécnica. Known for its fresh dairy products, the nearby farming village of La Majadita, a seven-kilometer hike or ride in the dry winter, is even calmer than San Agustín.
Many visitors stay at campgrounds, such as the riverside Camping Municipal (Rivadavia s/n, tel. 02646/42-0104, US$5 per two-person tent). The woodsy Camping Valle Fértil (Rivadavia s/n, tel. 02646/42-0015, US$2.50 pp) has better infrastructure.
As Valle Fértil’s appeal grows, it should draw a younger crowd to the dorms-only Hostel Campo Base Valle Fértil (Tucumán s/n, tel. 02646/42-5511, www.hostelvalledelaluna.com.ar , US$7–9 pp). Amenities include kitchen facilities, a bar, and a small backyard pool.
In a converted disco that can’t completely disguise its origins, rates at the Fatme Hotel (Rivadavia s/n, hotelfatme [at] hotmail [dot] com, tel. 02646/42-0014, US$25–30 d) rise for winter holidays, Semana Santa, and some other weekends. It’s quiet, the rooms are spacious with private baths and cable TV, and some have air-conditioning; all the windows are small, though, and a couple of downstairs rooms lack exterior windows.
San Agustín’s best remains the hilltop Hostería Valle Fértil (Rivadavia 1510, tel. 02646/42-0015, vallefertil [at] alkazarhotel [dot] com [dot] ar, US$45 s, US$52 d, with breakfast). Under the same management as San Juan ’s Hotel Alkázar, it also offers half or full-board options at its restaurant-confitería.
The food scene is improving. In addition to the hostería and the established Parrilla de Zulma (Tucumán s/n), La Cocina de Zulma (Rivadavia s/n, opposite a plaza) and especially Rinco’s Restó (Rivadavia s/n), a couple of blocks west, offer a greater diversity of Italo-Argentine food and atmosphere.
San Agustín’s Terminal de Ómnibus is at Entre Ríos and Mitre. Empresa Vallecito (tel. 02646/42-0427) links the town with San Juan  (4 hours, US$10) daily, and with La Rioja  (US$6) Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, passing the Ischigualasto  turnoff at the inconvenient hour of 4 a.m.