Cuyo: explore Argentina’s ‘country of the deserts’

A look at the central region of dinosaur fossils, stargazing, and adventure tourism

The country of the deserts. That’s the meaning of the word Cuyo in the language of the huarpe Indigenous people from the region. The ‘Cuyanía’ is a region in central-west Argentina that covers the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan, San Luis, and La Rioja. 

A home for dinosaurs more than 180 million years ago, it’s a global Mecca for paleontologic tourism, with 10 of the top sites where, for example, scientists found the fossil remains of Latin America’s oldest dinosaur (230 million years old). 

There are also valleys filled with vineyards, blessed by the mineral richness of the ice-melting rivers that flow down from the Andes Mountain Range — topped by the highest mountain on the American continent, the Aconcagua. 

Mendoza, much more than the fine wine

The province is the birthplace of malbec, Argentina’s national wine, a unique red that resulted from originally French vines that prospered against all odds (320 days of sunshine, rocky soils, mountain winds). Chosen as one of 5 Great Wine Capitals in the world, it concentrates 95% of Argentina’s vineyard surface. 

Tours to the Aconcagua (6,962 meters) and the High Peaks Circuit —193 km from Mendoza— are among the most popular destinations for mountaineering, climbing, and trekking. The effort of the upwards journey is rewarded by the eternal beauty of 32 square kilometers of glaciers, including Las Vacas and Los Polacos, which are among the most impressive ones in the country. Another reward is to contemplate the suspended flight of the majestic Andes condor, the largest gliding bird in the world, at the Villavicencio Natural Reserve.   

Mendoza is also the Cuyo capital of adventure tourism at the Atuel Canyon. It’s a 50-kilometer-wide geological wonder that dates back millions of years and combines reservoirs and rapids with waterfalls and hanging gardens. Located 75 km from the city of San Rafael, it’s also a paradise for fans of mountain biking, rappelling, paragliding, zip lines, kitesurf, and canopying. Only 10 kilometers away, you will find the Nihuil Dunes — a 30,000-hectare desert with hills of up to 200 meters which you can tour on a 4×4 truck.   

Don’t miss

  • Aconcagua National Park | Apart from being the prime destination of high-mountain roads in the Andes, there are attractions available on foot and horseback as well as cars along self-guided paths. One of them is Puente del Inca, ancient spring water baths built over a natural formation featuring endless tones of rusty colors, which resulted from the sediments of sulfur waters emerging at 34ºC/38ºC in the area. More information:  
  • Cacheuta Springs | If you’re looking for a 5-star experience in the Mendoza precordillera (pre-mountain area), this ideal spot is an exclusive and remote all-inclusive well-being compound with outdoor stone pools and a menu of hydrotherapies. Reservations:   
  • El Sosneado Circuit | Three to five camping days is the recommended stay to enjoy the beauty of this peaceful corner of the precordillera, 142 kilometers away from the city of San Rafael. A different adventure is scheduled for each day (on foot, horseback, 4×4) to explore the caves and remains of an abandoned hotel as well as rest in the healing waters of a forgotten spring in the highlands. More information:  
  • Tour to the Uruguayan Airplane | A 5-day challenging trekking tour that leaves from El Sosneado to the almost inaccessible border area between Chile and Argentina where, the crash site of an airplane that carried a group of Uruguayan rugby players, who were left for dead in 1972 and survived against impossible odds. More information:

The Dinosaurs Route

Most of the paleontologic and geologic treasures of Argentina’s central region are concentrated in San Juan, San Luis, and La Rioja provinces. Acknowledged as a World Natural Heritage Site by Unesco, the parks and conservation sites can take you back in time on a 200-million-year journey.   

The Talampaya National Park (La Rioja) is a stunning Mars-red canyon —an ancient river bed— with sand walls up to 150 meters high that form natural ledges where you can observe 225 million-year geological layers. It can only be visited with prior reservations and experienced guides who will assist in the observation of geological formations, petroglyphs, animal and plant fossils, and even footprints of guanacos and pumas. It’s located 200 kilometers away from the provincial capital. Tours on 4×4 trucks are available, with an average duration of 4 hours. You cannot miss the chance to spend at least one night at a camping site and sleep under one of the most star-filled skies in the world.    

Talampaya is usually visited in tandem with the Ischigualasto Natural Park (San Juan). Widely known as the Valley of the Moon, it is a supernatural landscape 330 kilometers from the province capital, with strange and fascinating rock formations carved throughout millions of years by the lashing waters, sunlight, and winds. The 42-kilometer tourist circuit can only be done by car and with an authorized guide. There are also pedestrian and bike circuits to observe fossils. Aside from camping or motorhome accommodation, there is a glamping project in the works with 10 domes for dinosaur fans.  

The route is completed with the Sierra de las Quijadas National Park (San Luis), a mountain labyrinth of red-soil ledges and terraces spotted with white carob and chañar trees, plus an elusive fauna as small in size (gray foes, maras, peccaries) as the larrea bushes that offer meager refuge from the sun and wind. Located 170 kilometers from the capital city, the natural amphitheater Potrero de la Aguada offers a panoramic view. Low-complexity, self-guided circuits can be done on foot, and the high-difficulty paths are made with official tour guides.     

Don’t miss

  • Astronomic Observatory El Leoncito (San Juan) | You can look at star clusters, planets, the moon, and galaxies through a telescope two meters in diameter, one of the biggest ones in the Southern Hemisphere. There is also a nocturnal observation service with scientific guides —with outdoor telescopes of an average diameter of 30 centimeters— with a dinner and accommodation option for one night (breakfast included). Observation on full moon nights is not recommended since its luminosity reduces the visibility of the star-filled sky. Information and booking:
  • Laguna Brava (La Rioja) | A dazzling 17 kilometers long water mirror with 4,400 meters of salt beds, surrounded by the highest volcanoes in the world, inhabited by pink flamingos, guanacos, and condors. The excursion is a full-day tour in four-wheel vehicles and specialized tour guides.
  • La Carolina Gold Mine (San Luis) | The site of Argentina’s greatest gold fever ever. Located 80 kilometers away from the capital city, it is a time-traveling journey. In the mid–19th century, a vein of the mineral was discovered by chance, and that changed everything: the population went from 300 farmers to 3,000 feverish gold workers. You can visit its abandoned tunnels and depleted shafts, at a depth of 300 meters. The tour includes a ride through the Instagram-friendly town: founded in 1972, in the peak of the Spanish colony, its stone streets and houses have been preserved in an enviable condition. More information:


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