Two extraordinary national parks in the Northeast of Argentina Talampaya and Ischigualasto (Valley of the Moon) are a must see for everybody visiting Argentina. While the former is dominated by a massive gorge created by centuries of erosion, the later is more flat but dotted with numerous funny rock formations. They both belong to the same geological formation, but are administratively divided into two provinces, Talampaya belonging to La Rioja, and Ischigualasto being part of San Juan. So this is where the problem starts. Both parks boasts some extraordinary landscapes, and are both worth visiting, but surfing the Internet didn’t clarify for me if they are really next to each other, and if they are both easy to visit together.
The Usual Way to Visit the Parks
Both provincial capitals (La Rioja and San Juan) offer plenty of excursions. From San Juan there is even an excursion that includes both parks in a single day. I would not recommend it. It takes the whole day, starting as early as 5AM. We have to take into account that both San Juan and La Rioja capitals are some 3-4 hours from the parks, so perhaps the ideal starting point would be a place closer to them. It took me quite an effort to find that place and now I can certify it exists: San Agustín de Valle Fértil. Though far smaller than the two capitals, it’s much closer to the Parks.
San Agustin de Valle Fértil
Located just an hour drive from the parks (45 min. from Ischigualasto and a bit over an hour from Talampaya) San Agustin de Valle Fértil or Villa San Agustín belongs to San Juan province. There are three daily buses from San Juan, it takes about 4 hours. From La Rioja there is only one night bus so it’s less convenient, plus the journey is much longer. The town is pretty small and surrounded by pristine nature. It has a relatively developed tourist infrastructure: decent hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, and travel-rental agents. Additionally, there are plenty of other excursions near the town.
Talampaya National Park
The Talampaya National Park, located to the west of La Rioja Province, was created in 1997. It belongs to the eco-region Argentine Monte or Monte de Sierras. It covers an area of more than 2000km2 at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level. The landscape in Talampaya is the result of water and wind erosion. Since its climate is that of a desert, night and day temperatures vary considerably. The main area of the park follows the dry bed of the Talampaya River. At one point, the valley turns into an impressive gorge 80 meters wide and 143 meters deep. In the park, you can spot foxes, guanacos, desert rabbits, maras, and condors.
Ischigualasto Provincial Park
The Ischigualasto Provincial Park, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is a natural protected area in San Juan Province, western Argentina. Established in 1971, it belongs to the same geological formation as Talampaya. With an area of 600 square kilometers, Ischigualasto is smaller than Talampaya and lies at an altitude of 1300 meters above sea level. Its climate is dry, winds are fierce, and temperatures extreme. Ischigualasto doesn’t have a principal area. Instead, you hop from one natural rock formation to another. The most famous ones are El Gusano (The Worm), Valle Pintado (Painted Valley), Cancha de Bochas (Field of Bowls), El Submarino (The Submarine), and El Hongo (The Mushroom).
Where to Stay near Talampaya and Ischigualasto
Hotels in Valle Fértil
There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses, and hostels in Villa San Agustín. We chose the apart-hotel C&C Valle Fértil, in the middle of town. It’s quite peaceful, so we had a good night’s sleep. We didn’t even use all of the amenities of this lovely place. According to fellow travelers we met on the road, the best hotel in Valle Fértil is the Hotel Rustico Cerro Del Valle. This colorful hotel is set in a beautiful garden and has a swimming pool. If you want to be a bit isolated and enjoy nice views, stay at the Hosteria y Cabañas Valle Fertil next to the lake.
Another great option relatively close to both parks is the little town of Villa Unión in La Rioja Province. It is just 45 minutes from Talampaya and about an hour and a half from Ischigualasto. Just like Valle Fértil, it is a real town with hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, and rental-travel agents. However, the town is a bit isolated. While Villa Unión is in the middle of nowhere, San Agustín de Valle Fértil lies between San Juan, La Rioja, and Córdoba. That said, you’ll find some fine hotels in town, including the Hotel Valle Colorado, the Hospedaje Familiar Raza Mistica, and the Casa Tres Cruces 2.
Other Places to Stay
If you have a car or don’t mind hitchhiking (there are plenty of cars along the main roads), you can stay in smaller towns or isolated hotels along the road. The closest accommodation to both Talampaya and Ischigualasto National Parks that you can book online is the Cabanas Los Arrieros in the tiny town of Balde del Rosario. The small town of Baldecitos is closer, but you can’t book online its only accommodation, Hospedaje Leandra. Pagancillo, between Villa Unión and the parks, has a couple of options too. The Arco Iris Raquel is the best, but it’s temporarily unavailable. A fancy, though an isolated option, is towards La Rioja capital in El Chiflon Posta Pueblo.
How to Visit the Parks from Valle Fértil
We strongly recommend staying in San Agustín del Valle Fértil and taking one day to visit each park. There is no massive tourism here so it’s not uncommon to arrange private tours for a very decent price. For a cheaper version you get to share a car with no more than 10 people. We organized our visit through a local hostel, so you better ask around once you arrive in Villa San Agustín. We shared a car to Talampaya with a driver and three other young Argentineans. We went to Ischigualasto alone in the car with the driver. Both options are great: you either meet people and learn new experiences, or you travel on your own, at your own pace.
Visit to Talampaya
Talampaya is privately managed and tours are a bit larger. The typical excursion includes an open double-decker bus where you enjoy views from the top, while getting down for short walks to explore the landscape on foot. We normally try to avoid all group tours, but this one wasn’t bad plus congrats to the management, the park is impeccably clean! We visited in April, so it wasn’t too hot. Nevertheless, be sure to bring a hat, sunscreen, and a bottle of water. Try to reuse your bottle as much as you can. We are the ones that dirty earth! One of the highlights of our visit was a small fox we saw in the bush, close to the entrance.
Visit to Ischigualasto
Ischugualasto or Valley of the Moon is state managed and offers a different kind of tour. Normally you have to arrive there by a private car. Be it your own or if you rented a car and driver, you follow the line of cars around the park. There can be up to a dozen cars in the line. Depending on the tour you stop in different spots and spend some time there. Basically we stopped at the main rock formations, including the Field of Bowls and the Mushroom. Again not entirely our kind of excursion (we prefer exploring the landscape in privacy), but it’s not overcrowded and it is pretty clean.
Traveling Around Argentina
Traveling around Argentina can be challenging if we take into account the fact that foreigners pay more for any domestic plane ticket. But an extensive network of comfortable buses allows you to get closer to the nature, at the same time getting to know the way locals travel. Hitchhiking is another fun option. Besides, the never ending gorgeous scenery is definitely worth it. We visited Talampaya and Ischigualasto on a wider tour around Western Argentina that included San Luis, Mendoza with the Aconcagua, and the city of Córdoba. We did the whole route by bus, sometimes even at night, in buses with fully reclining seats. It proved to be a fantastic experience!
Why Visit Talampaya and Ischigualasto
Talampaya National Park and Ischigualasto Provincial Park are one spectacular place divided into two for administrative reasons. But one should ignore that fact and pay a visit to both of them. In Argentina there are plenty of things to do. It is an enormous country, so you should not be in a rush. So once you are in the region I highly advise you to stay in Valle Fértil for a few days and do at least semi private tours. If you have a car it is a fantastic base. If you are like me, and don’t like driving, renting a car with a driver is not very expensive especially if you join a small group of friendly adventurers. And most of the people coming here are adventurers. Conformists prefer staying in La Rioja or San Juan, but I assure you there is not much to see there.