It was eerily silent.
There were only the white crumbly ground, dry desert shrubs and sedimentary rocks of otherworldly shapes. Lots and lots of these irregular rock formations; almost like they’re trophies in an outdoor natural museum.
Time and again, I thought to myself, “Where am I?”
If it wasn’t for the 15 or so tourists, I’d have imagine being lost on another planet. I wouldn’t be surprised if a one-eyed, four-legged monster dripping green gooey saliva jumped out from under the rocks and attacked us.
Indeed, this looked like a scene out of a Starwars movie, on one of the desert-like planets with alien inhabitants.
We were walking under the beaming sun towards the Cancha de Bochas (The Balls’ Field) in Ischigualasto Provincial Park.
Also known as Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), the over 60 000 hectares Ischigualasto Provincial Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 with its sister park Talampaya. Torrential rain, wind and millions of years of erosion turned this place… otherworldly.
Like a distant, forsaken planet, it is out of the way and hardly on the average traveller’s itinerary, which means that all the more I must visit.
The nearest village at 90km away is Valle Fertil and finding a tour in off-season is not the easiest. After all the hassle of securing one, I was excited to finally be here.
Instead of joining a tour bus like in the privately-owned Talampaya Park, a caravan of vehicles follow a park ranger - who also doubles as our official tour guide. We stop at 5 different points of interests throughout the 40km circuit, taking photos while the guide gives his explanation in Spanish. The whole tour lasts about 3 hours.
This means that you’ll have to be there with a vehicle, either a rented one or with a driver. One Swiss couple in the caravan went there in a kombi that they’ve driven throughout South America. #goals! Beware though, the road is extremely bumpy; I fear for the car’s suspensions.
Like for Talampaya, I paid ARS $450 for the driver and ARS $250 for the entrance fee. The good thing: there isn’t an annoyingly high ARS $600 for the guide. It’s included in the entrance fee! (June 2017)
We must’ve been late for the tour when we arrived at 2:15pm, because we skipped the first stop: The Worm. It’s a place to see the many sedimentary layers of carbons and other minerals this place has produced. I did not get to see the petrified plants but it’s okay because I started the tour with a bang!
The Painted Valley, with its variety of shapes, hues, and different striations of minerals and sediments, is the highlight of the park. The red of the iron oxide, the green of the copper oxide, the grey of the volcanic ashes and the white of the bentonite mineral come together to paint a natural art masterpiece: valleys of multicolour rocks with a ‘wavy’ feel.
With the red, ochre and brownish sandstones in the background, this area presents a lunar-like landscape, giving the park its nickname: Valley of the Moon.
If you’re wondering, I have never been to the moon but The Painted Valley gives off an out-of-this-world feeling that this is how the moon looks like.
Some say ‘Ischigualasto’ means ‘place where the moon rests’ in the Quechua tongue. Some say it means ‘land without life’. Looking at the Painted Valley and its surroundings, both are apt descriptions.
But where today we see almost a desert and only rock formations with no signs of life, in the past, this area was a huge lake surrounded by rich vegetation and plenty of animals. The tons of petrified fossils paint a story of how different this place used to be.
500m into the third stop, Cancha de Bochas, a sandy bunker of orderly-lined balls presented itself. These almost-perfect black spherical shapes aren’t eroded rocks; the tiny nucleus in the middle attracts particles over millions of years to become what they are today. Even scientists aren’t sure how they got the shapes!
I like to attribute these mysteries of the Earth to aliens. I’m sure aliens were playing marbles here millions of years ago. Kinda like how they also moved the moais on Easter Island. It wouldn’t be too farfetched here since this place looks like another planet’s site, would it?
As the sun started to slowly descend at the next two stops, we see different silhouettes of the malleable red sandstones, carved by the combination of water and wind erosion. They were given familiar names by Men looking for meaning: The Submarine and The Mushroom.
These geo-forms erode easily at their bases and are stronger at their top, resulting in distinct figures with long and thin necks. They are the most photographed feature of Ischigualasto Provincial Park and of course, I couldn’t resist taking one myself.
Sunset at The Mushroom and The Submarine would have the sandstone cliffs glow a deep bloody red, which adds a magical touch to the already otherworldly place.
As I walked in the park, I imagined dinosaurs - huge and tiny, fast and slow, fat and sexy - roaming beside me. That perhaps, the bizarre shapes in the sand and stones were a result of the mad dinosaur artists’ creations.
Ischigualasto is ground zero for dinosaur hunters. Every year, palaeontologists discover new fossils here for it is the origin of the Triassic dinosaurs 250 million years ago. Towards the end, a short visit to an interpretation centre as part of the tour even has a guide showing the cleansing of a dinosaur fossil.
At the entrance of the park is a small on-site museum displaying replicas of the giant two-legged reptiles and fossilized vertebrae of not only dinosaurs but other ancient creatures roaming the Earth. And in front of the museum is a line of artisan shops selling souvenirs for all the gift lovers and a café offering basic snacks and beverages.
The tour officially ended at The Mushroom, and from there is a scenic 30min drive under the magnificent red canyons, with the glowing red sunset behind us, and being surrounded by cacti looking uncannily like middle-fingers.
Ischigualasto isn’t quite the moon, but for a moment it felt like it. I was only 250 million years late, otherwise I’d be moonwalking with dinosaurs!
And now, it's your turn.