Exploring Valle Fertil & Ischigualasto's badlands

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Argentina  , Cuyo,
Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We bussed with Vallecito from Mendoza to San Juan, a relaxing 3hrs on a double-decker, refreshments provided and ‘DJ Mouse’s 70’s Classics’ to entertain us (!?). We then hopped onto a basic, packed bus for another 4 hours along RN141 and RP510 through flat open desert to San Agustin Valle Fertil. Along the way we dropped off locals, dark-skinned and stocky, struggling to carry babies, children, bags and boxes. As they disembarked we’d scan the roadside for a building, bus shelter or a waiting vehicle, but often there was simply nothing, just sand and scrub. Walls, bus shelters, and dilapidated buildings on route were covered in the conspicuous graffiti of an old political ‘No’ campaign. We passed through a desert town with crumbling bungalows and a concrete amphitheatre and, at the bus stop, a few scantly stocked market stalls and rugged-faced locals drinking mate and watching the comings and goings of the buses. On our left a gentle, relatively green mountain chain with deep canyons, the Sierra Pampeanas, slowly came closer and closer until we were skirting along its base. Tall cacti, rock stacks and crags were silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. We passed through a couple of small, noticeably more lush and inhabited valleys and then we pulled into the neat bus station at Valle Fertil.

We were met by a tout/guide who tried various tactics to get us to sign up for a tour. Not appreciating being pounced on after a long day of travelling we gave him the brush off. We later found out that a tourist had had a wad of money stolen by a guide who they‘d signed up for a tour with at the bus station! Some friendly dogs trotted through town with us to our hostel, their tails wagging, that is until a motorbike would pass by and they’d turn demonic, barking and charging at the wheels, frantically trying to bite them. Crazy hounds. We weren’t surprised to see a dead dog by the roadside now and again. Argentina is a nation of dog lovers and all these roaming, sociable dogs are pets, more or less. They’re generally in good condition and seem to have the innate knowledge that tourists are suckers for big eyes and a waging tail!

Valle Fertil is a pleasant town with dusty tree-line streets, blue and white striped benches, small cafes (that don’t seem to sell coffee), shops stocked with wine, fresh bread and cured hams, a green plaza with chattering parakeets, hostels and cabanas galore, an oasis of a reservoir above the town and of course lots of roaming dogs. But what really draws tourists, including ourselves, to Valle Fertil is the spectacular Parque Provincial Ischigualasto and the Parque Nacional Talampaya, declared together as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

At our hostel, Valle de la Luna Hostel, we just about managed to decipher the many tour packages offered by Martin the patient, non-English-speaking manager, and signed up for a tour of Ischigualasto for the next day. We then spent our first evening chatting with a young, switched-on Buenos Aires couple who were taking a break to explore their country after a season organising ice-trek tours on the Perito Moreno glacier.  We then retired to our six-bunk dorm room, which, thanks to it being off-season, we had completely to ourselves for four nights.

At 2.00 the next afternoon we, alongside German Alex and Austrian Claus (both impressively tri-lingual), were picked up by Ricardo in his battered old Renault. An ex-truck driver from San Juan now driver/tour guide, Ricardo was a real rough gem and his energy during our driving tour of Ischigualasto was untiring. During our five hours together, including the three hour tour circuit with the charismatic park warden, he joked with us (delighting in our reactions to the comically undulating road), had us posing for photos in front of cacti and the many geological features, pointed out animals, salt pans and important features and even took photos for us whilst driving and chain-smoking. His Dakar Rally impression along the winding dirt tracks of the park was hilarious, although I’m sure our dust cloud wasn’t appreciated by the car touring behind us!

The 630km2 Provincial Park is a wide desert valley between two sedimentary mountain ranges, the deep red Barrancas Coloradas to the east and Cerro Los Rastros to the west. Ischigualasto means ‘land without life’ in Diaguita, although a community of striking desert flora is supported here, which in turn supports hares, maras, foxes, guanacos and condors. The park’s common and more widely used name is Valle de la Luna, Valley of the Moon, a fitting name for an incredible, unearthly landscape. Ischigualasto is the only place in the world where the full sequence of continental sediments of the Triassic Period can be seen. In addition a raft of bizarre and colourful features have been carved over the millennia in the sandstone, clay and volcanic ash and predictably a few of these features have acquired names such as El Submarino (The Submarine), Cancha de Bochas (The Ball Court) and El Hongo (The Mushroom). And the icing on the cake for the park is the enormous wealth of fossils, some 180 million years old, including some of the oldest known dinosaur remains, petrified tree trunks of Protojuniperoxylon ischigualastianus more than 40 metres (131 ft) tall, fossil ferns and horsetails. The tour was in Spanish, but we managed to glean a bit and our fellow ‘gringos’ translated for us now and again, but clearly we’d have gained far more from the tour had we been fluent! We could have been forgiven for thinking we’d landed on Mars as we drove along the base of the Barrancas Coloradas, the setting sun turning the whole landscape a brilliant deep red.

Our last night at the hostel coincided with an asado evening, a BBQ with bells on. Ricardo was our asado chef and he knocked up a delicious feast - tomato salad, slow cooked bell peppers filled with egg, juicy steak and chorizo sausage, and of course lots of wine and beer. It was a really fun evening with Martin, Ricardo, Alex, Claus and two Dutch girls, one aptly named Luna, and a lovely end to our stay in Valle Fertil.

From Valle Fertil we bussed back to San Juan, the main transport hub for the area. We spent the night there, found a great café for submarinos and wandered Plaza San Martin hoping to catch some live open-air tango, before catching our bus the next day to Cordoba. The fourteen hour bus ride was OK, but having my face bitten four times by mosquitoes was definitely not OK! There was me wanting to arrive in Cordoba, cultural capital of Argentina, looking svelte (or a close imitation) and I looked as though I’d contracted some hideous skin disease of the face! Nice. 

Best wishes
Nickie and Phil
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