Home » captures of life and travels in South America & the States! » Argentina » San Juan

Category: San Juan

La Rioja, Argentina: Parque Nacional Talampaya and Parque Regional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna, San Juan)

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

When I lived in Argentina from July 2001 to August 2002, I managed to visit the majority of the country, discovering my love for travel and the beautiful, varied scenery of this very unique country.  Before moving back to the US, I bought a map of Argentina so that I could visualize all the different provinces I’d been to.  When I decided to head back to Argentina in 2013, I knew I wanted to visit San Juan’s Valle de la Luna (also known as Parque Regional Ischigualasto), which was another spot I had missed.  As I did my research, I realize that it made more sense to head to nearby La Rioja; that way, I could also visit Parque Nacional Talampaya.

Cathedral in La Rioja, Argentina Views fro La Rioja, ArgentinaI arrived in La Rioja before dawn, exhausted from lack of sleep on the very short journey from Tucumán.  I stalled at the bus station, waiting for my hostel to open at 7AM.  I chose to stay at Hostel del Sol, a slightly pricier but attractive new arrival to the budget travel scene.  As it turned out, the hostel was very quiet and not quite the place to meet other travelers, but I enjoyed chatting with the Argentines who worked there and finding out more about their lives.

La Rioja is a small, traditional city that still observes the siesta for several hours mid-afternoon, when the sun is strongest.  I took this time to wander around downtown La Rioja, checking out the major churches and cathedrals and getting a sense for the quiet lifestyle in this provincial capital.

Main Plaza, La Rioja, Argentina Views fro La Rioja, Argentina
Main Plaza of La Rioja; Paseo Cultural La Rioja (a shopping mall)

Finally, businesses opened again, and I headed to a highly rated tourist agency, Corona del Inca, to try to find a tour to explore the natural beauty surrounding La Rioja.  I quickly found out that I was once again in trouble as a solo traveler, as all the possible tours required at least four people.  Even though it was vacaciones, La Rioja usually sees very few tourists, and there were no tours leaving in the next few days.  Without much public transportation around the area, it was looking nearly impossible for me to see any of the scenery around La Rioja.

En Route to Parque Nacional TalampayaHowever, as I’ve said time and time again, my trip was blessed, and as I was sitting in the tourist agency, three very blonde, very friendly Dutch women walked in, looking for a tour to Parque Regional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna).  Due to transportation costs, tours always include Parque Nacional Talampaya, but the very convoluted management of this national park means foreigners have to pay an additional fee to visit as well as go on a tour guided by the park rangers, driving up the cost of the already expensive tour.  Basically, our tour guide was there for transportation purposes only.  However, as budget travelers, these girls were not sure if it was worth paying so much for a tour that was so similar to the regions they’d just visited in Bolivia.  I agreed with them, but I was in La Rioja, and I was going to find my way to Valle de la Luna.  In the end, they decided to go, and we set off early the next morning to Parque Nacional Talampaya, catching this gorgeous sunrise on the way.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

Parque Nacional Talampaya is basically a red rock canyon which you get to appreciate from the inside.  It is quite lovely to be down on the canyon floor, looking up at the towering rocks.  However, instead of enjoying your ride with your tour guide from La Rioja, you’re forced to go on a large, guided tour with in the park’s official vehicles with one of their official guides.  This is ostensibly to protect the scenery but the cost of this tour is so expensive that it is clearly a revenue generator for the national park system.  Our official guide turned out to be kind of a jerk, stereotypically arrogant as well as super impatient when we lagged behind so that I could translate for the Dutch women, who did not speak much Spanish.  Honestly, our experience with the official guide was so bad that I remember it clearly a year later and very nearly wrote a letter of complaint.  On the bright side, we were lucky enough to have a friendly driver who explained interesting aspects of the history of the canyon and pointed out good photo opportunities from doing this tour so many times.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Rock Art, Morteros, and Algarrobo Trees in Parque Nacional Talampaya

Beyond the red rock canyon walls, there is a fair amount of rock art left behind by the indigenous cultures that used to inhabit this area, along with more morteros, or ancient mortar and pestles.  The park is also known for the algarrobo trees that grow here.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

We continued along our route, getting out to walk around a few times and take in the various aspects of the landscape.  I especially appreciated the pretty clouds above us and the river creating vibrant, mineral-rich red mud on the surface of the canyon.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

Like Valle de la Luna, which we would visit next, there are several rock formations that look so much like a condor or a cathedral that they are labeled with these names.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

I was less interested in these formations and more intrigued by the steep cliffs towering above us.  We could see the differences in minerals very clearly, shown by the obvious striation in the layers of rock.  This indicates some sort of major climate-related event in the history of the region.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

As we looked out over these towers of red rocks, I paid particular attention to the abrupt change in the landscape.  While the canyon was all red rocks and little vegetation, green bushes grew in abundance just beyond the national park.  You could also spot the peaks of the Andes in the distance.  It was so clear that you could make out the snow-capped mountains!

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Getting Stuck in the Mud and Posing Outside Parque Nacional Talampaya

On our way back, we actually got stuck in the soft mud and had to be towed out.  I found this quite amusing and had to snap a picture.  Before leaving the park, we stopped for lunch.  As it turned out, the on-site restaurant actually offers a vegetarian option that I did not know about, so I’d packed my own snacks to get me through!

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, ArgentinaAfter leaving Talampaya, we crossed the provincial border into San Juan province en route to Parque Regional Ischigualasto.  A little internet research showed me that the park encompassing Argentina’s Valle de la Luna has actually resisted becoming a national park for many years, probably to keep their revenue inside the province and to let them manage things their own way.

Valle de la Luna has turned up a lot of dinosaur fossils, which are the focus of the small on-site museum.  At Valle de la Luna, the rules are a little different; you must explore the area with an official guide, but all of the vehicles follow him caravan-style, stopping at five official viewpoints, where the guide explains what you’re seeing.  Since it was a big week for travel for Argentines, our caravan was quite large, but the guide was good-humored and interesting and managed to explain the sites very well.  He even tried to speak English with my Dutch companions!

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Valle Pintado, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

After the red rocks of Talampaya, Valle de la Luna really did look like another world.  The brown and grey tones of the rocks looked desolate.  If it weren’t for the massive number of visitors, you could certainly imagine being lost on another planet.  I loved the way the blue skies and clouds added another dimension to the landscape.  This part of the tour is called the Valle Pintado for the multicolored rocks in the valley.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Views from Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

While many tourists took pictures of the major landmarks on our tour, I tried to appreciate the different aspects of the rock formations around us, such as the otherworldly shapes, crumbly ground, and the various mineral striations in the distance.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Cancha de Bochas, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

One of the major stops is known as the Cancha de Bochas.  Cancha means court and bochas means bocce balls, so this name describes the orderly lineup of these round rocks.  According to our guide, scientists have no clear idea of how these rocks formed into such round shapes!

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
El Submarino Amarillo, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

Next up was the yellow submarine, named for the Beatles song and the color of this ship-like rock formation.

As we walked around to the other side of the yellow submarine, San Juan’s tourism bureau had a surprise for us.  We heard a live orchestra playing a lively version of the famous Beatles song, followed by a tango performance by two talented local dancers.  After that, we were invited to sample San Juan’s local delicacies of raisins, wine, and nuts.  I was very amused by the idea of drinking wine inside a national park; I could not imagine doing that in the United States!

It was nice to see them embracing the high volume of tourists passing through the Valle de la Luna during these two weeks of winter vacation.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

After enjoying our wine, we piled back into our cars to continue the caravan to the Valle de la Luna’s most famous landmark, El Hongo, or the Mushroom.  Surrounded by the gorgeous colors of the canyon, this rock formation is the most photographed and most distinctive feature of Parque Regional Ischigualasto.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

After having enough time to sufficiently appreciate its beauty, our tour ended, and we continued the journey out of the valley as the sun set.  As we left, our guide told me that this “five stop” tour was a fairly recent development; a decade ago, you were allowed to drive through the Valle de la Luna independently, stay as long as you wanted, and experience other awesome, photogenic parts of the valley.  I was a little bummed that we could not stay for sunset, as the colors would probably have been amazing!  Like I’ve said, Argentina’s approach to tourism is very different than that of its Andean neighbors, and not in a good way.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Sunset over San Juan, Argentina

After leaving the park, we began the long drive back to La Rioja.  I now understood why the tour was so expensive; this tour was 12 hours long and involved driving long distances and a lot of waiting.  On our way back, we had a funny experience: we got stopped by the Argentine police for what seemed to be a routine check.  Apparently this area experiences a lot of illegal immigration (?) and the police wanted to make sure that we were all legal.  However, I had forgotten that it was Argentine law to have my actual passport with me and only had the color copy that sufficed in Peru.  I ended up being very friendly to the police officer and saying, “A copy is okay, right?” as well as translating once again for my Dutch friends, so we had no problems.  Once we were on our way again, our guide told me that they could have asked me to get out of the car and he would have had to leave me behind with them!

I want to say that I made sure to keep my passport on me for the rest of my time in Argentina, but I’m not sure that’s true. 😛  I’m just glad this police officer was not on a power trip and allowed me to continue on my way without any trouble.

I spent the night in La Rioja, and after much internal debate, decided to continue on to Mendoza the next day, which would be my final stop in Argentina.  I had thought about trekking over to Córdoba, but at this point I was ready for some wine, outdoor sports, and relaxation.

Recommendations for La Rioja and San Juan, Argentina:

  • If you’re traveling alone and want to do some adventure tourism, find a group in another city or go to the backpacker hostels around Valle Fertil.  There are some beautiful regional parks in the area, but they’re not easy to get to without your own transportation.  Make a group and rent a car, if at all possible!
  • La Rioja itself is a small provincial capital and not that interesting, aside from some pretty churches and regional weavings and crafts in the Museo Folklórico.  Unless you are very interested in seeing something off the beaten track, I wouldn’t say this city is a must-visit destination.
  • If you stay in La Rioja and are on a backpacker budget, you can stay at Apacheta Hostel, a slightly less expensive hostel located near the city center, or Hostel del Sol, which is nicer and newer, a little more expensive, and about 10 blocks from the center. I really enjoyed Hostel del Sol’s breakfast and common spaces, but it is fairly far from anything.
  • I highly recommend booking your tour with Corona del Inca, which is the most established and reputable agency in the area.  I found them to be very professional.
  • While attractive, I think Parque Nacional Talampaya is overpriced and overrated, and I wouldn’t suggest you go out of you way to visit.  Parque Regional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) is much more interesting, and easier to visit from San Juan.  For a few days around the full moon, they offer a special nighttime tour.  I wish I had known about it before going – it sounds super interesting.
[La Rioja, Argentina: July 24-26, 2013]

Six Weeks on the Road in Chile and Argentina!

How time flies when you’re on the road!

I’m currently revisiting Arica, Chile, after a 32-hour bus ride from Santiago. In a few hours, I’ll leave for the Peruvian border once again, crossing over to Tacna to begin another 21-hour ride back to Lima. From Lima, I’ll leave for the part of my journey I’m most excited about: exploring central and northern Peru, regions I have yet to visit!

I thought I’d be able to keep up with my blog and upload photos on a much more regular basis, but the truth is, when you’re traveling, you’re focused on the moment. Access to the internet is plentiful, but a lot of hostels I’ve stayed in only have a good signal in open courtyards, and since it’s winter, I usually don’t have the stamina to sit outside for a long time. Even when I’ve had good access to the internet, I’ve spent my time looking for hostels and deciding on my next destination; it feels like a waste to spend too much time on the internet! On top of that, I take so many pictures that I’m still behind in selecting the best, though I’ve been using these long bus rides to catch up as best I can!

In the last six weeks, I’ve covered a lot of ground! I started with a few days in Arica to get to know the area and visit Parque Nacional Lauca. From there, I headed to San Pedro de Atacama, a place I’ve wanted to visit for over 10 years. And it is still the highlight of my trip; there are so many gorgeous things to see in the Atacama. After San Pedro, I crossed the border to Argentina, heading directly to Salta, Argentina, historically my favorite city in the world. I spent a few days in Salta enjoying the ambiance and people, and then I headed to Cafayate, known for its wineries and amazing scenery. Most people spend a day or two there, so it was nice to take a couple more days to get to know it better. It’s changed a lot since I visited in 2002.

From Cafayate, I headed south again to Tucumán, a city I’d never visited, and the birthplace of Argentine independence. Tucumán is known for its nightlife, and I took advantage of this, heading out to a super-club almost as soon as I arrived with the awesome people at my hostel. I saw some of the sights and then headed on to La Rioja, another small city I’d never visited. I lucked out and managed to join a group to visit Parque Nacional Talampaya in La Rioja province and Parque Nacional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) in neighboring San Juan, two interesting and scenic parks which are not frequently visited by foreign tourists. Then I headed to Mendoza, where I spent a lovely week recovering from so much travel, tasting all kinds of wine, riding horses, relaxing in thermal baths, and meeting wonderful travelers.

After much internal debate, I decided to skip Buenos Aires on this trip, since it is just too far away from Peru, therefore too expensive to fly from. Instead, I headed back to Chile to spend nearly a week in Santiago visiting former students turned friends! Santiago was fascinating to me, as it has a lot in common with both New York and various Californian cities, especially when you take into consideration the neighboring cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso! I loved my time in Valparaíso, especially, and have to spend more time there at another moment. I still love capital cities, though most travelers prefer to skip them, so I am a fan of Santiago.

And today I’m en route back to Peru. I definitely feel like six weeks won’t be enough to see everything I want to see in this amazing country, but I’m going to do the best I can! 🙂

Below are quite a few selected pictures from my trip so far, with more details and more information to come, all in due time, of course. 😉

Sunset in Arica, Chile
Sunset in Arica, Chile

Laguna Chungará and Volcán Parinacota, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile
Laguna Chungará, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile

Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Sunset from Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Chaxa/Salar de Atacama
Salar de Atacama/Laguna Chaxa, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Salar de Tara/Aguas Calientes, San Pedro de Atacama
Posing at Aguas Calientes, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Ojos de Salar, San Pedro de Atacama
Ojos del Salar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Merienda on the Plaza, Salta
Merienda on the Plaza, Salta, Argentina

Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

Near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate
Hiking near Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina

Neblina (Cloud Cover) on the Road to Tafí del Valle
Sea of Clouds, near Tafí del Valle, Tucumán, Argentina

Sunset in Tucumán, Argentina
Sunset near Tucumán, Argentina

El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, San Juan
Valle de la Luna, San Juan, Argentina

Wine Tasting at Clos de Chakras
Wine Tasting, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

Posing at Termas de Cacheuta, Mendoza
Termas de Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina

View from Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

Flowers Near Santiago, Chile
Flowers near Santiago, Chile

Posing at Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar, Chile

Posing on top of Cerro Santa Lucia
Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile