The expansive deserts and incredible rock formations of San Juan are a great destination for dinosaur enthusiasts.
Ischigualasto Provincial Park (“place where the moon rests” in Quechua), better known as Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), lies in an expansive and magnificent desert. This strange, clay-like landscape is located 300 kilometers from the city of San Juan, and is also an important paleontologic destination.
In San Agustín del Valle Fértil, the nearest town, you can get something to eat and check out the Ischigualasto Museum before visiting the park. The museum is a great, didactic introduction to what you’ll see in the park, with life sized dinosaur replicas.
Land of dinosaurs
In the Triassic period of the Mesozoic Era this desert was an immense lake surrounded by vegetation. It was the habitat of many different species – among them dinosaurs. 60 million years ago, the rocky masses of the Andes compressed this area against another group of mountains, the Pampean Sierras. Wind and water caused the land and rocks to erode, creating these amazing geographic formations.
Once inside the park, the 40-kilometer circuit has 5 stops and takes about 3 or 4 hours to complete. You can enter with private cars or tours. Tickets can be purchased in advance online www.ischigualasto.gob.ar. A guide is always in charge of the route and you have to walk a little at each stop, on a terrain that can be difficult at times
“El Gusano” (The Worm) is an elevated rock formation with fine layers of sandstone and coal and perfectly preserved fern fossils. The “Balcón de Valle Pintado” (Balcony of the Painted Valley) looks out over a landscape of wavy white and purple rocks. Another, “Campo de Bochas” (Bocce Field), is a flat field with large round rocks. Nearby, you’ll see the park’s most famous formation, “El Submarino” (The Submarine), and the iconic “Hongo” (Mushroom). The spectacular red cliffs In the background are “Los Colorados” (The Red Ones), a formation with iron mineral deposits.
Because Ischigualasto Park is also an important paleontological reserve, its Museum of Natural Sciences and Interpretation center is worth a visit. Located at the park’s entrance, it houses the 230-million-year-old remains of two dinosaurs found there.
In addition to the car route, you can do the Full Moon Circuit, a 2 ½ hour hike that takes place 4 nights a month when the moon is bright and full. Reservations are required – call (+54) 0264 15 4570879 at least two days in advance. There is also a bike circuit through a little-known area of the park. It takes 2 ½ hours to bike 12 km with a guide and terrain-ready bicycles. Another option is to hike the 3 hour uphill trek to see the beautiful view from Cerro Morado.
Nearby there are many small towns that have traditional holiday celebrations. We recommend checking the calendar to visit on one of these days if you can, as there is typically live music and food and the local festivities are very enjoyable. You can also visit the city of San Juan, try the olive oil from Caucete (on the way from Valle Fértil), see the house where Domingo F. Sarmiento was born (a very interesting experience), take a tour of one of the local wineries (tasting included!) or check out the Museum of Urban Memory. This museum has an earthquake simulator and tells the story of the city’s reconstruction after a 1944 earthquake that killed over 10,000 people.
How to get there
The park is 1,180 kilometers from Buenos Aires. You can rent a car, take a bus (14 hours) or fly to San Juan. We recommend renting a car in the city to see the area and also to visit another nearby prehistoric site, Talampaya Canyon in La Rioja (60 km from Ischigualasto).
Where to stay overnight
Ischigualasto cabañas de campo (www.ischigualastocampo.com.ar): a complex of cozy, country cottages surrounded by nature. There’s a swimming pool, thematic restaurant and scenic overlook. It’s located in Usno on the outskirts of Valle Fértil.
If you’d like assistance planning a trip to Valle de la Luna or another destination, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org