From the town of Perito Moreno, where we visited the Cueva de las Manos, we went straight to Villa Unión in order to visit the famous Talampaya and Ischigualasto parks. “Straight to Villa Unión” actually means that we spent 4 days in buses, with stops in Bariloche, Neuquén (where we happened to be there on the hottest day of the summer and our hotel didn’t have any electricity for a seemingly endless time and therefore no air conditioning), and Mendoza. We finally arrived in Villa Unión at 2 a.m. in a bus full of young people going to a festival in the small town. We skipped the party and went directly to our hotel and to bed.
The next day was a hot and windy day and the mountains were almost invisible because of the amount of red sand in the air. We walked to the center of the small town to get information on tours to Ischigualasto and Talampaya parks but all the agencies were closed. It was a Sunday but according to what people told us, the tour operators should have opened in the evening but no matter how long we waited, none of the offices opened.
The friendly owner of our hotel (Cabañas Valle Colorado – a great inexpensive place with big rooms and a fantastic restaurant) then made a few calls and organized a tour for us and another couple for the next day, to visit both parks in one day.
Now, wouldn’t it have been better to contact the agencies (Rolling Travel and Runacay) beforehand? Probably not: the other couple sent them emails but never got an answer. Our driver (who runs his own small company; DS Uno Viajes, www.dsunoviajes.com.ar) confirmed that it was best just to come to Villa Unión and see. There are only tours when there’s enough demand; usually at least four people. So plan enough time in case you have to wait a day or two. And despite what the tour agencies’ web sites tell you, it is absolutely possible to see both parks in one day.
Ischigualasto park you visit in your own (eg. your driver’s) vehicle. Every two or three hours, a convoy of cars, lead by a park ranger, drive into the park. There are five stops where the ranger tells you something about the place and you can take pictures. It’s definitely a very interesting and important place for geologists and paleontologists: The formations contain deposits from the late Triassic as well as other periods and some of the oldest known dinosaur remains in the world.
However, for the “normal” visitor it’s not very impressive. The surroundings are stunning, no doubt, it’s a weird, otherworldly landscape – hence the nickname “Valle de la Luna” (valley of the moon) – but since you sit in the car most of the time and the time you spend at the five sites is very limited, you can’t really get close to the place and get a real feel for it.
If we’d have to choose between the two parks, we’d go for Talampaya; it’s red sandstone cliffs, which are about 150 meters high, and the petroglyphs, are absolutely stunning. That day however, we decided not to go into the park because it was very cloudy and not good for taking photographs. We’re picky, yes.
This meant that the next day we had to get up early and take the 7 am bus to the park. It’s actually the park rangers driving to work who stop at Villa Unión to pick up the occasional tourist.
At the park office, you have to choose how you want to visit the park: by minibus, truck, on foot, or by bike. I would have loved to walk through the canyon but the walking and bike tours are run by another company and their office was – surprise, surprise – closed and no one knew when it would open. Therefore, we decided to go on the first possible tour, the one with the truck. The good thing is, if you choose the truck (the most expensive option) you get something to eat and drink; try the olives, they’re delicious!
The tour lasts about three hours. First, you stop at rocks with mysterious petroglyphs (their meaning open to interpretation) carved into stone by the indigenous nomadic people who passed through the canyon thousands of years ago. After that, you drive through the canyon and finally to freestanding stone towers and a lookout point.
As for the wildlife, there are hares, rheas, parrots and, at the park office, a huge tarantula that made people run out of the room and the girl from the souvenir shop stand on a chair screaming.
Talampaya is more expensive than Ischigualasto; expect to spend around 45 USD per person if you take the bus from Villa Unión (we got back by hitchhiking). But it’s absolutely worth it, the landscape is very impressive.