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San Juan Province, ARG


November 4th, 2018

On this beautiful Sunday, we made our way into the San Jan Province, north of Mendoza.  Our destination was El Leoncito National Park.

El Leoncito is located on the western slopes of the Sierra Del Tontal 34km south of Barreal and 220 km northwest of Mendoza.  The lack of atmospheric pollution in this isolated place and the dry weather guarantee at least 300 days of unmatched sky transparency per year, making it particularly suitable for astronomy research: within the park there are two observatories located at 2300 and 2500 m above sea level). Safeguarding the atmospheric quality was a central concern for the astronomical center, which in turn required careful administration of the ecological environment. Thus in 1994 it was decided to place the area under management of the Parks Board as a reserve in and in 2002 it was further promoted to national park status. 

The climate is cold, with permanent ice in the high Andean region. In the Puna the weather is cold and very dry with large temperature amplitude. Overall, the average annual rainfall is 200 mm (7.9 in).

The park’s fauna includes various rodents, lizards, red and grey fox, viscachas, guanaco, suri cordilleras (rhea) and puma.

Upon entering the park we saw a small rodent on the side of the road but it naturally did not stand still for long; it was a moro cuis (a type of guinea pig) – here’s a www photo:

We arrived here early in the afternoon and got settled.  They have a nice bathroom block here with hot showers and there is a wifi zone up at the info centre but it didn’t work that well; was on and off.  There are a couple of hikes to do here and two observatories as well.  When we registered the ranger told us that one observatory requires a reservation by calling (we have no cell signal so that’s a bust) but the other you just drive up there before 8pm and they do about an hour’s time on the telescope with you for less than $6 US.

We spent a relaxing afternoon just reading; there are some little flies here, bigger than no see um’s and they don’t bite but are annoying. So that night we decided that for $6, it was worth it to see another observatory and there’s NO moon right now, so the stars should be more visible than when we went to Pangue.

So after dinner, we shut down and drove the 3km to the observatory, CESCO.  (Doug caught a glimpse of a fox enroute.) Now being that it’s spring here the days are getting longer and at 7:30 the sunset has not set.  The drive up to the site was on a dirt road that climbed some and it was quite windy so we were driving slow and at times had the sun full on coming in the windshield and bouncing off the hood.

Well, this is why we don’t drive much after 4pm.  We hit the edge of the dirt road and Doug managed to stop us just as we began to slide down…….We both climbed out the driver’s door as Fran saw dirt sliding down the slope.

A big uh oh and boy we were both quite shaken and grateful we’d not slid down but of course, now what?  The observatory was less than a half a click away so Doug jogged up there to see about getting help.  He returned in about 15 minutes and said help was on the way

While waiting, we managed to get a few things that might be needed to pull us out: the winch, extra straps, pulleys etc.  We waited about twenty minutes and a pick up arrived with two astronomers from the observatory; they said they’d head to the ranger station and see about getting a tractor to pull us out.  About twenty minutes,  later they returned saying that being Sunday night, there was no one to drive the tractor and they’d help us out.  They borrowed our spade and dug out around the front of the right tire, Doug got the winch/pulley system rigged up and they parked their pick up in front of us to the left.  Doug got in Tigger and the truck began to slowly direct him off the edge and Tigger was safe!  Boy we were relieved but our hearts continued to pound.  Fran was unable to take video of this as it was getting to dark to capture it all (besides she would probably not have been able to hold a camera/phone steady!).

Once we released a few sighs of relief and offered hugs and gratitude to Hector and Oswald, they advised we were still going to be able to do the tour; we were the only ones there that night (and the sky would be better this late) and we finished the drive up to the observatory.

We spent about an hour viewing the night sky (which was spectacular that night with no moon or clouds) and were able to see Mars, Jupiter and Mercury with the naked eye and we viewed Saturn, a butterfly star cluster, a nebula and a tarantula cluster.  We were shown the Alfa Centaury galaxy (visible with naked eye as well) and Hector pointed out many constellations.  The telescope here has a camera option and we could see what the telescope saw in much zoomed out detail on a large screen with the constellations, planets etc. highlighted.

We were offered some tea and cake after which it was very dark and Hector used their camera to take a photo of us under the milk way:

Oswald suggested we spend the night in Tigger here in the parking lot rather than driving back down to the campground and we were grateful for that.   We were both still quite pumped on adrenaline and could not sleep so we watched a bit of tv but neither of us slept that great.

Upon awaking we drove back down and went to a trailhead past the visitor’s centre to do a hike.  It took us along a canyon, through some hills and panel boards told us some of the history of when this area was settled and about the flora and fauna.

The main attraction was a small waterfall which had more water in it than we expected but the cooler thing was that before reaching the falls we spotted an animal out at the base of the nearby mountains that seemed too big for a viscacha (rabbit looking creature related to the chinchilla) and ran differently than a fox.  We could not grab a photo as it ran too fast and then hid by a bush.  After talking to a ranger later we learned it was probably a puma! (web photo)


We also saw a small flock of green and white birds:

We got back to Tigger after about an hour’s walk, made breakfast and spent some time rearranging all the “extraction” gear before returning to the campsite.  After nice hot showers we decided to spend another afternoon relaxing and reading in the park.

Tuesday morning we made our way a whole 34 km to the small town of Barreal where there was free wifi on the town square.  Enroute we were hoping to spot the rheas in the wide open area near the entrance where they are supposed to be roaming but had no sightings.  (Rhea are large land birds similar to the African ostrich and the Australian Emu.)

We spent a good chuck of the day using Barreal’s free internet, parked on the square, before taking a walk and picking up a few things.  We knew we could later move to the outskirts of town to a mirador to spend the night.

The mirador parking spot worked out great; sunset not so much but it was a quiet spot with no dogs, roosters or traffic.

We left Barreal but stopped by the wifi zone for a quick email check before heading north over 200km.

We made a stop at Cerro Alcázar which is a mustardy coloured set of hills/canyons that sort of reminded us of Monutment Rocks in Kansas. We parked, walked up to the view spot and then upon along a slot canyon.

We stopped in about 40 km to gas up in Calingasta and to check out the town’s 17th century adobe chapel; it was closed and we found out you need to go back into town to get the key from a women at a restaurant so we just viewed it from the outside.

We carried on along the Ruta 149 which was a good paved road until Villa Nueva then it was 86km of gravel but the first almost 60km were in good shape.

At that point we reached the Statue of Jesus (in the middle of freaking nowhere!) then a police checkpoint where the officer took our license plate number and copied down Fran’s passport info as she was driving.

Next, excitement:  we saw a rhea on the road well in front of us with a bunch of little ones! (so far away this was the best we could do – see web photo after it)

rhea is a large flightless bird native to South America, distantly related to the  ostrich and the emu.  They have grey-brown plumage, long legs and long necks, similar to ostriches.  Large males can reach 170 cm (67 in) tall at the head, 100 cm (39 in) at the back and can weigh up to 40 kg (88 lb). Their wings are large for a flightless bird (250 cm (8.2 ft)) and are spread while they run acting like sails.  Unlike most birds, rheas have only three toes. They also store urine separately in an expansion of the cloaca.

We continued on to Bella Vista where we sure did not have much luck; the camp spot we had in mind was closed as were the other two in town so we pushed on to Las Flores.  There was a gas station that takes campers but had no showers so we checked out a nearby hostel but he wanted too much money for parking with wifi but no showers as he was full up.

We then carried on to Rodeo – a major windsurfing/kiteboard hub – but all the camp spots but one were closed as well – a few weeks too early for season; we did find a hostel that takes campers but again no wifi and the price was steep just to be able to have a shower.  We drove into the village centre; used the wifi there for a bit and then went out of town to the other side of the reservoir (Rio Blanco) and found a wild camp with awesome views of the lake

Rio Blanco is like a small Lake Powell with the added bonus of an Andes view on the west.

Thursday morning we drove a little further up the east side of the lake before leaving and saw a van with Cali plates parked in a different rest area than us; a French couple, Antony and Marie, are fellow overlanders and the first we’ve me in over 5 weeks.  They too are heading south but much faster.


A further 40km east to San Jose de Jachal where we stopped for gas and met a young American couple from Cali, Bryan and Amelia are travelling in a Westy and are going south for a return trip to the US in January.  There is a small café here where wifi is free so we sat for a while with them.

We were headed to a campground that was supposed to have wifi but the owner was not that and Doug checked out the bathrooms only to discover they were not very nice so we moved on further north about 100km to Guandacol.

Here the campground we were looking at looked okay but the owner was not going to be back for at least two hours and the woman we spoke to did not know the price, the WiFi password or where we’d be able to park so we left and went to a hostel not far away.  Ricardo did not have a practice of allowing overlanders (yet) but after talking to him, Doug negotiated a price that allowed us to park and have the use of a room for it’s bathroom (the place does not have stand alone bathrooms).  We had a bit of trouble entering the parking lot due to low hanging branches but a couple of his employees helped out by holding up branches with a couple of rakes.  We got parked and boy was it getting hot!

After dinner we decided we’d look for a plug so we could run our fans at least.  Ricardo just happened (?) to come over while we were plugging in and said he’d appreciate we not use too much power and we said we really only needed it for the night so he said sure, “please unplug in the morning”.

It never really cooled off much (temps had hit 30C / 86F during the day) so we were glad to be able to run our two fans.

our evening neighbour

Next morning we unplugged when Fran made a bathroom run.  We did some chores in the morning, Doug went for a walk into town (about 1.5 km) to pick up a few things and check out the town (wasn’t much).  We spent a few hours on the average internet and just tried to stay cool.  Today it was supposed to hit 33C / 92F with a UV index of 11!  We are showering twice a day as Tigger becomes a sweltering tin can with this much sun and heat. The showers here are hot and the room we have “rented” has a ceiling fan.  Fran actually brought in all the floor mats and washed them in the shower – they dried in record time in this dry heat.

We spent much that day and the next chillin’, reading, and on the internet. The town here, Guandacol, is pretty small and sleepy.

Not much in the way of shops although there are a lot of shoe stores (?).  We managed to get a few items at the supermarket but the pickings are slim.

We left the hostel on Sunday morning and made our way to Talampaya National Park via the town of Villa Union to get a few more groceries (although pickings again were slim) and signed up for the 2:30 tour.  As it was still morning, we took the two small walks you can do: one to see cheesy dinosaurs:

And one through the desert- there was a kind of watch tower, but no stairs to get up there!  We didn’t see anything worthy of a photo….

Parque Nacional Talampaya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.  The park covers an area of 2,150 square kilometres (830 sq mi), at an altitude of 1,500 metres (4,921 ft). Its purpose is to protect important archaeological and palaeontological sites found in the area. It has landscapes of great beauty.  The park is in a basin between the Cerro Los Colorados to the west and the Sierra de Sañagasta to the east. The landscape is the result of erosion by water and wind in a its desert climate, with large ranges in temperature – high heat by day and low temperature at night, with torrential rain in summer and strong wind in spring.

The park includes:

  • The dry bed of the Talampay River where dinosaurs roamed millions of years ago
  • The Talampaya gorge and its rock formations with walls up to 180 metres (590 ft) high, narrowing to 80 metres (262 ft) at one point;
  • The remains of indigenous peoples’ settlements, such as petroglyps 
  • A botanical garden of the local flora at the narrow point of the canyon;
  • Regional fauna, including guanacos, hares, maras, foxes and condors.

This park really reminded us of southern Utah – in particular Highway 128 along the Colorado River (without the river!).  Sheer walls, red rocks, cool formations and desert like conditions – all up our alley. The weather has cooled off comfortably now; our guide said it went up to 42C / 107F yesterday and it probably only hit 26C / 79F today with a nice breeze.

The tour was on an “overland” vehicle in which we had to sit inside until we entered the main canyon

And then we could sit up top outside.  We made four stops on the under three hour tour: one to see pictographs and petroglyphs:

then on to see a small green area, try an echo experiment up the chimneys of the canyon walls

Then before moving on but while up on the bus, we saw two maras: (a large relative of the guinea pig found in South America) aka a cavy sometimes known as a patagonian hare:

and have a nice little “snack” which included a choice of wine or juice, nuts, olives, raisins and a weird sweet.

And the final stop was to see cool rock formations like the monk and the bottle:

The tower and totem and a small boardwalk.

On the way back we saw guanaco and four more maras.

By the time we returned to the park office, it was five o’clock and we decide to spend the night here; they charge about $3 pp and there are bathrooms with hot showers, picnic tables and power.  There were two other overlanding vehicles here: one larger Argentinian one and a VW van with a French family.  There was also a small van with some vacationing Argentines.

It was a quiet night and we left before mid morning to make our way to the next park: Parque Provincial Ischiguasto.  It wasn’t as sunny of a day as yesterday and we had a couple of sprinkles but the sun poked out a good deal. There was hell of a wind at times though.

Parque Triasico Ischigualasto is the most visited site in this province.  The word “ischigualasto” means dead land in Quecha. The park is quite large but tourists only get to see about 20% of it and that only on a tourist circuit 40km (25mi) long.  You go in your own vehicle in convoy with a guide in the lead vehicle.  This park is all about the stunning landscape and the dinosaurs fossils found here.  It was original called the Valley of the Moon and around the full moon, they offer night tours. It became a park in 1971 and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000.  

The region become a paleontologist’s’ dream in the 1930’s and over 70 species have been unearthed here. 

Most of the park lies at an altitude of about 1,300 m (4,300 ft and features typical desert vegetation (bushes, cacti, and some trees) which covers between 10 and 20% of the area. The climate is very dry, with rainfall mostly during the summer, and temperature extremes (minimum −10 °C (14 °F), maximum 45 °C (113 °F)). There is a constant southern wind with a speed of 20–40 km/h (12–25 mph) after noon and until the evening.

In order to visit this park, they have hourly guided tours.  You drive your own vehicle in a convoy and at designated stops, the guide (in the first vehicle) explains the history and geology of the vistas and you get time to walk around a bit and take photos while staying off the protected areas.

There were about eight cars (including us) in our group and the tour took just over three hours.

First stop: Valle Pintado

Second stop; Cancha de Bochas (ball field)  – here you see almost perfectly round rocks

Third stop: El Submarino and views of the park below (where we saw a fox and guanacos)

Fourth stop:  The Dr. William Sill Museum (not really a museum but they explain how they dig for fossils) and there’s a lovely panoramic view point

Fifth and final stop:  El Hongo (the mushroom)

Then you can drive back to the gate at your own pace.

In the parking lot back at the entrance, we saw a fox and some peregrine falcons.

We had read that there was Wi-Fi here and you could camp in the concrete parking lot but it was not working today so before leaving we checked out the small museum

and we opted to move on down the road to the tiny village of Baldes del Rosario where there was pretty good free Wi-Fi on the “square”.

Tuesday morning, we made our way to the provincial capital of the San Juan, the city of San Juan and made two stops enroute: for gas in San Agustin and then a tourist site: Difunta Correa; translated this means “defunct” Correa (the second word being her last name).

Legend has it that during the civil wars of the 1840’s, a young woman named Deolinda Correa followed the movements of her sickly conscript husband’s battalion on foot through the deserts of the San Juan area.  She carried food, water and their baby son in her arms.  When her supplies ran out, thirst, hunger and exhaustion killed her.  Some muleteers passed by and found her body and her infant who was still nursing at its mother’s breast.  (Another story goes that her husband’s commander wanted her to himself when her husband joined the war and when she wouldn’t agree, he shot her in front of her child.)

Commemorating the apparent miracle, this shrine is believed to be at the site of her death.  Since the 1940’s this shrine has grown from a simple hilltop cross into a small village with its own gas station, school, post office, and the like.  There are 17 chapels and people leave gifts in exchange for her help (for some reason there are many car parts: license plates, lights even a steering wheel).   Truckers are especially devoted to her and you see many shrines along the highways where bottles of water are left to ward off her thirst.  She is not considered a saint, but a “soul” who can intercede on your behalf. 

We arrived in San Juan in the early afternoon and we had a bunch of Tigger related errands to get done so instead heading right to get them down (cause nothing would be open during the long lunch hour here, we stopped at a YPF Gas station for lunch and WiFi – and they allow you to park out back for the night.

So Wednesday was a errands day: laundry and groceries and a few items needed looking at on Tigger.  We had found a mechanic that seemed promising on iOverlander but it didn’t pan out; we arrived at this shop before 8:30 to learn he opens at nine and at nine only an employee and a customer were there.  The owner showed up at 9:50!  Doug explained our issues and he said he could help but needed to make space in the garage for us.  We said we’d go drop off our laundry and be back; nothing had changed so we drove around looking for a welder and a tire place; found one and then went back to check on Julio but still no movement so we gave up on him.  The tire place referred us to a mechanic down the block and there we had the sway bar repaired, the welding done and we got a referral to an alignment place.  As it was now “siesta” time we went over to the mall for grocery shopping (in big cities, the malls don’t seem to do “siesta”).  Laundry wasn’t going to be ready until 6 so we decided to check the alignment place to see if their “siesta” was over – it was 4:30.  They were open and took us right away.

The business is family owned and we met the owner’s mother and son; she offered us mate (see below) and cake and chatted with Fran for a while.  Once we were done (it seemed to take a few tries) we headed back to get the laundry and went back to the gas station where we’d spent last night. It was much warmer today; up around 30C / 86F and it was hot in Tigger.  It did cool off over night but the temperatures are warming up again so we expect a few warm days coming up.

Mate is a traditional drink in some countries in South America especially Argentina and Brazil.  The drink, which contains mateine (an analog of caffeine), is made from dried leaves of yerba mate. It is served in a hollow calabash gourd with a “bombilla”,  a special metallic straw which is traditionally made of silver. The gourd is known as a mate or a guampa. Even if the water comes in a very modern thermos, the drink is traditionally drunk from mates or cuias. There are now modern “tea-bag” type infusions of mate called mate cocido which have been sold in Argentina for many years.

The bombilla is both a straw and a sieve. The end which is placed in the drink is wider, with small holes or slots that let the brewed liquid in, but block the chunky matter that makes up much of the mixture. A modern bombilla uses a straight tube with holes, or spring sleeve to act as a sieve. 

Mate is made differently in different places, with many arguments about which way is the best. In nearly all methods,the gourd is nearly filled with yerba, and hot water (typically at 70–80C [160–180F] and never boiling) is added.

We spent another night at the gas station and next morning headed east to Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas; a small not well known park that both Christine & Mark and Angela & Graham recommended.  The park and the camping were free and there are five walks you can take in the canyons; three on your own and two guided.

Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas was established on December 10, 1991, to protect the natural features, representative of the  Semiarid Chaco and the Argentina Low Monte ecregions.  The park is located in the San Luis Basin, whose surface is composed of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous outcrops of various ages. Dinosaur fossils have also been found in this park and footprints can be visited.  Chaco species such as the gray fox, maras, parakeets, condors, the Argentine boa, armadillos and iguans can be found here.  

After registering, we drove the 6km / 4 mi to the longer trail and did a walk; it was mid day so not much out in the way of wildlife, although there was a grey fox in the parking lot!  We saw the lovely vistas, rock walls and canyons.

It was about an hour and then we went to park Tigger at the campground area.  There are bathrooms with cold showers but no other services.  At the entrance of the park there is a small school and there you can get a free wifi signal.

We spent the afternoon sitting in the shade reading and around 6 another van drove in with a young Argentine couple from Buenos Aires.  We chatted a bit with Norberto and Cecilia and then the bugs began coming out as the sun dipped so we went in for dinner.  The day was fairly warm but there was a breeze for most of it and the night cooled down pretty nicely.

We have been in touch with Mark & Christine and agreed to meet in Mendoza this weekend to do a bodega tour so we made our way back to Mendoza via San Luis (Doug was hoping to find a dentist there).  Just before entering the Mendoza province at a fruit checkpoint, we heard a rattling sound; it was the newly repaired sway bar dragging on the ground getting grided down!  Doug removed it and we’ll see what, if anything, we can do in Mendoza next week.