Argentina is an ancient land, geologically speaking. Once upon a time, its landscape was covered by jungles and seas where dinosaurs and other mythical creatures roamed. Today, you can venture into those lands of Jurassic and other monsters.
Dinosaurs roaming across the Argentine plains. Photo by Lorraine Caputo
During the Permian Period of the Palaeozoic Era (251-299 million years ago), South America was still part of Pangaea. This supercontinent began tearing apart. South America and Africa were still one continent during the Jurassic Period (150 million years ago), the most famous dinosaur era. Those great jungle forests were covered with ash when this great continent tore apart, forming the Andes. The landscape then was covered by sea about 40 million years ago.
Fossils from all these eras scatter the pampas of western Argentina and the Patagonia. Some dinosaur species are unique to Argentina.
The most famous dinosaur fields are near Neuquén, on the northern edge of Argentina’s Lake District. Plaza Huincul (106 km / 65 mi) west of Neuquén towards Zapala) has a museum that displays dinosaur eggs and a skeleton of the 35-meter-long herbivore dinosaur Argentinosaurus huinculensis, the largest ever found in the world. You can see a replica of the biggest largest carnivorous dinosaur in the world, Giganotosaurus carolinii, at the museum in Villa El Chocón (80 km / 50 mi southwest of Neuquén). Three kilometers away, near Lake Ezequiel Ramos Mexia, are well-preserved, 120-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales, 95 kilometers (58 mi) northwest of Neuquén, is an active dig.
North of Neuquén, is San Agustín del Valle Fértil, located between San Juan and La Rioja cities. San Agustín is the gateway to two parks that preserve prehistoric remains. Parque Provincial Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) has rain and wind-sculpted, 45-50 million-year-old rocks that are said to be the best fossil fields in the country. The most primitive dinosaur, Eoraptor lunensis, was found here. Adjacent to the Valley of the Moon is Parque Nacional Talampaya, a national park protecting more dinosaur fossils.
To see life-size dinosaurs roaming across the Patagonian plains, head to Sarmiento and its Parque Temático Paleontológico Valle De Los Gigantes. This is a Cretaceous Park, featuring great—and small—reptiles from the last dinosaur era, like Aniksosaurus Darwini, which weighed only 50 kilograms (110 lb), Notohypsilophodon comodorensi (25 kg / 55 lb) and Epachthosaurus sciuttoi (10 metric tons / 11 tons). Some 38 kilometers (24 mi) southeast of Sarmiento is Monumento Natural Provincial Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento, a petrified forest created 65 million years ago during the great geologic upheavals.
The largest, most impressive petrified forest in Argentina is Monumento Natural Bosques Petrificados, also known as Bosque Petrificado Jaramilo, located 220 kilometers (132 mi) south of Caleta Olivia and 230 kilometers (138 mi) north of Puerto Deseado. This national park contains not only the remains of the semi-tropical forests that carpeted these prairies during the Devonic and Jurassic periods, but also fossils of oysters, shark teeth and ancient other marine life from when this was a massive sea.
Cabo Curioso. Photo by Lorraine Caputo
More remnants of that sea can be seen at Cabo Curioso, 11 kilometers (6.6 mi) north of Puerto San Julián. The cliffs are rife with 35-75-million-year-old, gigantic oyster fossils that piqued the curiosity of Charles Darwin.
The dinosaurs and forests that once carpeted southern Argentina from Neuquén to Puerto Deseado left behind petroleum that the region’s economy thrives upon. The landscape is dotted with oil wells dipping and rising, pumping the rich, black blood to the surface.
With the austral spring approaching, it’s a great time to get to these and many other palaeontological sites. To help you dig Argentina’s Jurassic, Devonian and Cretaceous Parks, pack along a copy of V!VA Travel Guides Argentina.