THIS POST MAY CONTAIN COMPENSATED LINKS. FIND MORE INFO IN MY DISCLAIMER.
We have met loads of wonderful people on our journey but by and large it has mainly just been the two of us. Our lack on Spanish prevents us from having proper conversations with the locals and there have been an incredibly small number of Overlanders on our route so far. We have wild camped a lot, but even when we have gone into campsites, Thor is usually the only campervan there. This has had twofold repercussions in that I haven’t had fellow travelers to ask for route advice and I haven’t had many people to chat to.
We’ve been travelling for 3 years now and not once have I ever felt lonely. It’s not even a term I think about. I am so completely happy in my own space and of course I have my non-stop chatterbox son, Tai, constantly by my side. But for the first time ever I felt a bit lonely and I think what it really boiled down to was a lack of a proper conversation with another adult. Nothing serious, just someone to shoot the breeze with, have laugh and to make a connection with another human.
Arriving at Los Olivos in Tinogasta was just the tonic. Here I met the wonderful Monique (Dutch) and her husband Carlos (Argentinian). Besides the fact that they spoke my cherished English, they integrated me into their community, giving me an opportunity to meet and interact with local people so that I wasn’t just the traveling onlooker, but rather a partaker in community events. It was exactly what I needed to shake of the lonely feeling and feel like I mattered again. Four days of this special place and I was full to the brim and rearing to go again. Thanks Monique!!
Their sparkling pool was full of kids everyday, so Tai also got a much needed dose of kids, games and lots of fun!
WHAT WE DID IN TINOGASTA
PRIVATE ENGLISH LESSONS
The owner of Los Olivos Camping, Monique, is an English teacher, so when two of her students arrived for a lesson, she asked me to join them. The two ladies having the lesson were Inis and Lilianne and as they practiced their English on me, so I tried to practice my extremely minimal Spanish on them. The result was a fun hour getting to know each other while drinking mate.
Mate is an herb from which they make tea. It gets drunk out of a communal mug with metal straws. Hot water is added, and the mate mug is passed to someone. When they have finished, they pass it back and more water and mate is added for the next person. It is a ritualistic communal practice and you see people everywhere with hot water thermos flasks, sharing mate.
Mate definitely gives you a kick and keeps you awake and apparently the poor drink it a lot to stop from feeling hungry. I like the mate but think I might stick with my traditional coffee for that early morning kick!
MEETING KIDS IN THE PARK
Monique organized for us to meet a bunch of her younger students in the main plaza in town. There were about 10 of them, aged 15 and 16 years old. We sat in the park drinking another form of mate, called terere. This uses the same mate herb, but it is mixed with cold juice. It’s really sweet, so out of the two I think I prefer the hot mate better.
The kids were amazing, asking all sorts of questions about us and our travels and answering questions we posed to them. Once again, we were greatly aided by google translate! Tai wasn’t so interested in chatting, but he’d brought along a soccer ball, so he had fun kicking it around with some of the boys.
We spent about 2 hours with the kids and then they took us to their school where two of Moniques older students were writing their final English exams. Once they finished their written part, I was called into the classroom to chat to them for the oral part of their exam. They were so nervous and I wanted to die for them! They were both studying tourism, so I just asked them all about what I should go see in the area, which they could easily answer.
The end of year graduation ceremony is a grand event in Argentina. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents, all attend. Everyone dressed in their best attire with the latest style platform shoes. The schools are beautifully decorated with candles and swaths of colourful material. Dogs and kids caper about, music thumps from enormous speakers between each speech and those graduating have the hugest grins.
We were incredibly honoured to be invited to attend a graduation with Inis and Lianne, who as Rotary Members, were there to present certificates to deserving students. It was a little embarrassing being told to sit in the front row, but even more so when I heard the Headmaster say the words “South Africa” followed by our names, “Jeanne and Tai” and a huge round of applause. We were treated like guests of honour, which we really didn’t expect or deserve, but which we were incredibly grateful for. It was a wonderful evening and so far removed from the stiff formal ceremonies I attended at school. This was full of love and endless hugs with family and teachers. As each child received an award, so all the family would come up and a slew of photographs would be taken with more hugs and kisses and love. Just as it should be!
FIAMBALA HOT SPRINGS
The hot springs of Fiambala are beautiful, tranquil, super clean and make for a fun days outing. The natural hot springs bubbles out of the earth at a crazy 80°C temperature and cascades down through a series of rock pools, getting cooler as it goes. The pools all have little signposts showing the temperature, so you choose your perfect heat, with weeping willows offering shade from the midday sun. I was weary of sitting in hot pools when the weather was so hot, but being up in the mountains, the springs had their own micro-climate and the heat of the pools was delicious!
The springs are high up in the mountains, so the views on the drive there were gorgeous. At the entrance, follow the path that goes to the right for about 10 minutes for a dramatic view out across the valley.
The minerals in the springs are healing for skin ailments, rheumatism, arthritis, etc. As such there are cabins for hire for those wishing to stay the full 7 days required or treatments. There is a restaurant or you can bring your own and picnic at the numerous tables and chairs dotted around.
The springs were about an hours drive North of Fiambala on Ruta 60. It is an easy drive, but the last section going up to the springs is ridiculously steep. We made it though, so you should be able to as well.
COST: 300 ARS per person
WHAT WE SAW DOWN RUTA 40
In the heat of summer, the Hulaco Canyon is not to be missed! Clear, clean blue water cascades down the canyon creating fabulous pools in which to swim. Get your swimming costumes on and wade through the pools, climbing over boulders to reach the next pool. You can walk up for about an hour with not another soul about. The earlier you go the better as the rocks get hot underfoot as the sun heats them up.
The entrance to the Hualco Canyon can be found at the office of the Archaeological site of Hualco.
The Archaeological site of Hualco is the archaeological reserve of the Aguada Culture and a guided tour is required. Sadly no one could speak a word of English so we though it would be futile exercise paying for the tour, so we gave it a miss. The little museum had some interesting artifacts.
GPS: S 28°29’20.9, W 67°07’05.1
RUTA 39 & 11
We left Ruta 40 at the town of Pituil to do a more scenic loop. From Pituil we went West along Ruta 39 until the town of Campanas and then turned South down Ruta 11, until we hit Ruta 40 again.
We passed quaint little towns, beautiful mountain scenery and a picturesque narrow canyon near the end, but most fascinating was our first sighting of what we now call a “trash shrine”.
The story goes that a woman named Deolinda Correa set off into the desert with her infant son to rescue her husband who had been forcibly conscripted to fight in the civil war. After days of walking in the heat with no water, she lay down to die, while breastfeeding her son. A few days later she was found dead, but the baby was alive and miraculously, still feeding.
Now, devotees bring bottles of water as offerings and leave them in huge mounds next to statues of her and her feeding child.
CUESTA DE MIRANDA
The Cuesta de Miranda or Miranda Slope can be found on Ruta 40 between the towns of Villa Union and Chilesito in the Rioja region. This 40km pass is a feat of engineering with absolutely incredible views. There are many places to stop along the way to take photos and breathe in this magnificent landscape.
Villa Union is the starting point for many overland trips into the mountains, as well as the base for visits to Park Talampaya and Park Ischigualasto. We drove into town and parked at the square in the middle of town. I’d decided that tonight we were going to treat ourselves to a nice meal so spent an hour or so researching all the restaurant options in town. The Argentinians eat dinner at 10 – 11pm but by 8.30pm we were starving so set off for my number one choice. It was closed. And so too were virtually every single restaurant I could find. Clearly Monday nights are not a good time to go out to eat, so be warned should you pop by Villa Union on a Monday evening. We eventually found a hotel serving food – a hard, overcooked beef schnitzel which they call Milanese – and some chopped tomato. Not quite the gourmet meal I had been expecting, but they did let us wild camp in their parking lot for free!
See how small the van is?Park Talampaya is a quick 70km from the town of Villa Union. In 2000, Park Talampaya and its neighbouring Park Ischigualasto were both designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites to protect their rock formations and fossils dating back to the age of the first dinosaurs.
The main draw to Park Talampaya is the Talampaya Canyon formed with red Triassic rock, the Botanical Garden, The Lost City and the Rainbow Canyon.
You may only drive yourself as far as the entrance. From there you are required to take a guided excursion, which is not cheap, but I guess when in Rome…! There is a choice of vehicle, and options to cycle or hike. There are also two excursion routes – one goes to the Talampaya Canyon, Don Eduardo Canyon, Great Lookout, Botanical Garden, the Chimney and the Monk – the other tour goes to the Lost City.
We opted for the Talampaya Canyon tour which took 3 hours. Lucky for us, we had the tour vehicle all to ourselves and our guide spoke enough English to explain most things to us. We saw lots of prehistoric rock art and learnt interesting facts about the habitants at that time. Driving through the canyon was amazing with these sheer red cliffs looming above us on both sides. At the Botanical Garden we were treated to a choice of water, coffee, juice or wine!!! A lovely touch. At the Chimney, we stood shouting our names and then waited to hear the words rebounding off the cliff and echoing back at us. We had fun trying to guess the names of the rock formations, but the best part of all was a sighting of a pair of Mare. These are very large desert rabbits. Tai spotted two under a tree, so we jumped out and managed to get quite close before they hopped off into the distance.
Back at the visitors centre, we followed the Dinosaur trail. A fun walkway with life sized dinosaurs set among the plants. There was info on each dinosaur, but it was all in Spanish. We were accompanied by a huge flock of squawking parrots, something we have seen quite a lot in this region. The Dinosaur walk took about 20 minutes, but I’m sure it would take longer with kids, who would absolutely love this!
COST: Entrance to the park = 400 ARS each. Canyon Tour = 1400 ARS for adults and 700 ARS for kids.
Ischigualasto Park was designated as a World Heritage site due to its unique rock formations; ancient fossils and the oldest dinosaur remains to ever have been discovered. It is also the only place in the world where Triassic continental sediments have been found. These are ash, white, grey and vermillion coloured rocks with fossils of reptiles and dinosaurs. This is a Paleantologists heaven!
The oldest dinosaur remains are from a tiny dinosaur of only 30cm tall and 1.5m long, who lived in this area more than 2228 million years ago!
Ischigualasto is also known as the Valley of the Moon due to its unique landscape and it really does look that way.
As with Park Talampaya, you must have a guide with you, but you drive the circuit in your own car. We were in a convoy of 6 cars with the main guide driving in the first car. We were lucky enough to get an English speaking guide who came in our car with us.
We stopped at the following attractions along the circuit: Fossil of the worm, Concretions at the Bowling Field, where hundreds of perfectly round balls of stone lay scattered across the field. Rock formations of the Sphinx, the Submarine, the House and the Mushroom. Panoramic landscapes of Triassic sedimentary rocks of grey, blue-green and white in the Painted Valley and ochres and reds at the Cathedral and Red Cliffs. We also stopped at Dr William Sill’s Museum to see dinosaur fossils still in the earth and to watch a video.
The tour took 3 hours and was worth every single penny! Such amazing sights!
The tourist centre is also fantastic. The museum shows all sorts of dinosaur artefacts, presented in a fun modern manner. There are a number of curio stalls, a restaurant and a huge kids playground. If you’re traveling with kids, this is a must do stop.
COST: 450 ARS per person
VAN LIFE & LESSONS LEARNT
- You cannot find feta cheese in Argentina! In fact, we have yet to see it anywhere in South America.
- You are not allowed to take fruit, vegetables or cooked meat across the borders, but driving into Mendoza province we were stopped and asked to hand over all our fruit. Wish we had known as we had a bag of delicious nectarines we could have eaten beforehand.
- When it’s getting dark and you don’t have a place to stay, the best option is always a petrol station. They generally always have wifi, something to eat and bathrooms to use. We tried really hard to make it to Mendoza, but night fell, and I really can’t see in the dark. We persisted for about 20km with Tai assisting in the navigating – pretty dangerous I know! It was a long stretch of road with nothing but farmland on either side, so not safe to stop and stay, when finally, we came across a brand-new gas station. So, with a whoop of joy, we pulled in and crashed for the night.
WHERE WE STAYED
TINOGASTA: We stayed as Los Olivos. Lovely green grass, a stunning pool at no extra fee and lots of barbeque stands. Hot water and electricity points. The cost was 500 ARS per night.
GPS: S 28°2.362′, W 67°35.260′
HUALCA CANYON: We were wanting to park in the Archeological sites parking lot, but the last bit of the road was under construction, so we stopped on some flat gravel on the side of the road. We woke to a view of vineyards and mountains – beautiful.
GPS: S 28°29.209′, W 67°07.051′
VILLA UNION: We had planned on parking at the main square but ended up in the parking lot of La Palmera Restaurant as it was the only restaurant open on a Monday night. They had wifi which we could access from inside our van and they had bathrooms should you need.
GPS: S 29.3379561′, W 68,2263150′
ISCHILAGUASTO: Wild camping in the parking lot at the Ischigualasto Park Information Centre was a huge win! Electrical points, stunning bathrooms with the hottest and hardest showers we’ve had all trip and free wifi near reception. The restaurant also made great empanadas! And its all free!
GPS: S 30°9.9833′, W 67°50.446′
20KM FROM MENDOZA: We stayed at the Axiom Gas Station. They had wifi, a full restaurant and bathrooms. There were also some food trucks on the opposite road.
GPS: S 32°43’0.988”, W 68°40’45.537”
We covered a huge distance this week driving from Tinogasta > Fiambala > Villa Union > Park Talampaya > Park Ischigualasto > Mendoza
Total Distance: 1034km
I will be providing our basic travel costs per week, so that you get an indication of what a trip like this entails. Bear in mind that we are budget travelers, so your budget could vary depending on your lifestyle choices. For example, we always opt for the cheapest and often, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and only require very basic accommodation. For us, the experiences are where it is all at, so we’d rather spend money on activities.
The costs below are for the full 7 days. They do not include campervan repair costs, visas and insurance costs.
The costs below are shown in Argentinian Pesos (R1 = 4.20 ARS) ($1 USD = 60 ARS).
- Fuel = 12591 ARS
- Los Olivos Camping = 3 night = 1500 ARS
- Fiambala Hot Springs = 600 ARS
- Park Talampaya = 2100 ARS
- Park Ischigualasto = 900 ARS
- Restaurant = 2460 ARS
- Supermarket = 5458 ARS
Van Supplies and Living
- Laundry = 0
- Phone Data = 0
TOTAL = 25 609 ARS = USD $429 or R6 130
WHERE TO NEXT
We are going to take some time to explore Mendoza and then we’ll get back on the famous Ruta 40 and make our way steadily South again. We’ll do a slight diversion through the Atuel Canyon and I have no doubt we will find some other incredible sights along the way!