Our early start turned out a bit later than we’d planned. But winding our way southbound through Catamarca and into La Rioja the whipping wind and miles and miles of olive trees we found ourselves shy of our destination — Valle de la Luna and Parque Nacional Talampaya. But arriving in the capital city of this province, Jeremiah and I were quite surprised. Bustling with activity and eager shoppers prepping for the holiday we were excited to find a group of motorcycle travelers on a guided trip led by Sonia and Roberto of MotoAdventure based in Osorno, Chile. Their clients a group from Germany were staying in one of the finer hotels in this small city. Jeremiah and I opted for a more economical solution just a couple blocks off the main plaza.
An early morning start once again failed us as Jeremiah scoured the plaza for an ATM that would take his local S&L bank card. By the time we got to Valle de la Luna we found Sonia pacing through the tiny office of this regional park which is actually called Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. For this trip Sonia was riding two-up with her husband Roberto. But when they arrived earlier that morning at this other worldly landscape they were warned that a torrential thunder and hailstorm the night before had made some of the roads inside the park unpassable or at least extremely slippery. Riding or driving through this park, which reminded a lot like Bryce or Zion National Parks in Southern Utah, requires a guide who takes visitors on a three hour tour through incredible formations of red sandstone, monochromatic clay and volcanic ash. Small algarrobo trees, desert shrubs and the ever present cacti contribute to the other worldly experience. But this morning the three hours had passed. The park ranger couldn’t contact the guide by radio, and Sonia was worried. Seems one of the moto travelers had back surgery and this tour had been guided strictly on pavement — except this mornings ride through Valle de la Luna.
In discussing our plan for touring the park, the ranger advised us that we’d have to wait for more tourists. You see the park nor rangers have transportation. Guides usually find an open seat in one of the tourist’s cars and a group of vehicles caravans behind the car or truck with the guide. To see the park we’d have to wait because nobody could enter without a guide. And neither of us nor the guide were quick to suggest riding on the back of the motorcycle. The park roads are dirt and clay. The evening’s rainfall might have forced a turnaround by the group. But no information was available.
About 30 minutes later the sound of motorcycles carried by the fierce winds brought a smile to Sonia’s face. Soon the group emerged. Turns out 2 of the motorcycles slipped and fell, evidenced by the muddy marks on the bikes and riding gear. Then the fear set in. The notion of slipping on slippery red clay in this park put me on the defense. I considered just heading to the other park in the region — Talampaya — and blowing off Valle de la Luna. But the more I quizzed the other bikers the more I talked myself into trying. Sure, there were muddy sections, but if I dropped my gear in the office I could ride much lighter and therefore navigate any technical terrain around the mud. Besides, we’d be with a couple other cars and moving slowly through the park. So why not?
The reward more than paid for the risk. The place is amazing. The park sits in a desert valley between two sedimentary mountain rangers: the Cerros Colorados to the east and the Cerro Los Rastos to the west. The river that runs through this valley, the Rio Ischigualso has carved unique geometric and Dali-esque shapes through the valley. And “the ride through the park” winds you through the most interesting including Cancha de Bochas – where smooth spheres slightly larger than a softball were formed like pearls and simply sit naked on a field of sand. Asian sand garden enthusiasts eat your heart out — this is the real thing. Then there’s the El Submarine (The Submarine) El Monte (The Monk).
Only one section during our three hour tour through the park caused me any problem. I started to fish tail through some mud but quickly corrected and got out choosing the high and dry road once sampling the slippery terrain.
Talampaya, just an hour north, was closed after we finally departed our Moon Valley. The nearest town several hours away we decided to camp. A challenging fight with my tent brought back memories of The Motorcycle Diaries but fortunately I was able to tame my North Face beast. Soon the sunset and my power of my xeon/LED headlamp lit of the yellow eyes of a dozen or more four-legged critters scurrying around the camping area outside Talampaya. A little freaked out at first, it soon became a game as I bobbed my head around catching the reflection of these critters as they stared in wonder at this bright light atop a gringo motorcyclist. The next morning I learned my furry wide-eyed friends were foxes.
Unlike Valle de la Luna, we were unable to ride our bikes through Talamapaya National Park. A concession has secured the exclusive rights to tour visitors through the park. At about $30, the entrance to the park is quite costly to most Argentinean people. As such, there is some discontent among the people. Nonetheless, Talampaya is the closest thing Argentina gets to The Grand Canyon. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Parque Nacional Talampaya in Argentina’s La Rioja province was created to preserve important paleontological and archaeological sites including hundreds of aboriginal petroglyphys. Condors nest in the tall walls of the red sandstone canyon.
Among the several stops along the way was Chimenea del Eco where our small group of 6 screamed “Queso” only to hear our harmonic chorus to echo effortlessly for nearly a minute through the canyon. The towering cliffs and deep orange and red colors rivaled anything I’ve seen in Northern Arizona or Southern Utah. But after our three hour journey in an open aired jeep it was time to tackle the long 300 mile journey to Mendoza — we hoped to arrive before dark.