Land of the Dinosaurs

Neuquén is one of the planet's dinosaur hot spots, with numerous fossils of great importance found in the area since 1988, including those of the world's second-largest herbivore and the largest predator ever to have walked the earth. Here, three important paleontology sites – Plaza Huincul, Villa El Chocón and Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales – lie within a couple of hours’ drive of Neuquén city and will delight anyone even slightly interested in dinosaurs.

In 1989 a local Neuquénian named Guillermo Heredia discovered a dinosaur bone on his property 7km east of the town of Plaza Huincul. Paleontologists investigated the site and later unearthed a dozen bones belonging to what they named Argentinosaurus huinculensis – the largest known dinosaur in the world at the time. The gargantuan herbivore, dating from the mid-Cretaceous period, measured an incredible 40m long and 18m high. The sheer size of the Argentinosaurus huinculensis is difficult to fathom, which is why stopping to gawk at the replica skeleton at the Museo Municipal Carmen Funes is a humbling lesson in size.

About 80km southwest of Neuquén city, the Museo Municipal Ernesto Bachmann boasts the remains of the 100-million-year-old, 13m-long, 8-tonne, meat-eating Gigantosaurus carolinii, the world’s largest known carnivore. Discovered in 1993 by fossil hunter Rubén D Carolini, the dinosaur is even bigger than North America’s better-known Tyrannosaurus rex. El Chocón is also home to giant dinosaur footprints along the shore of Ezequiel Ramos Mexía reservoir. One local confessed that families used to fire up asados (barbecues) in the footprints before they knew what they were!

Those with a serious interest in paleontology can arrange a visit or a multiday stay at the Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales, located 90km northwest of Neuquén. While its lack of funding means that it's not in a position to receive casual visitors, it's open to researchers and students of paleontology, and it's well worth getting in touch with renowned paleontologist and bilingual project director Jorge Calvo to see if your visit can be accommodated. This is a working paleontology site where volunteers can get their hands dirty, dusting off Cretaceous-period bones and picking at fossils, and spending their nights in the silence of the desert. The on-site museum contains some wonderful finds, including part of a jaw bone of the Gigantosaurus carolinii, dinosaur eggs and much, much more.

If driving between Chos Malal and Neuquén, for hardcore dinosaur fans it's worth going the long way and swinging by the Museo Municipal Argentino Urquiza to have a look at the only known fossils of a Titanosaurus, as well as fossilized Titanosaurus eggs.

From Neuquén's bus terminal, there are regular buses to Plaza Huincul (AR$138, 1½ hours, five daily), Villa El Chocón (AR$107, 1¼ hours, three daily) and Rincón de Los Sauces (AR$290, four hours, five to seven daily). To reach the Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales you need your own wheels; take RP 51, not RN 7.

Touring Neuquén's Wineries

Neuquén lies at the heart of one of Argentina's southernmost wine regions, with a string of superb wineries along northbound RP 7 fed by artificial oases that make grape cultivation possible in semi-desert conditions. The region is known best for its cool-climate varietals, such as malbec, semillon and chardonnay, as well as some of Argentina's most prominent pinot noirs and most of the country's sparkling wines. The wineries are open year-round, but the best time to visit is during the harvesting season from February to April, when you can witness the different stages of wine production in action.

The five wineries known as the Bodegas de Neuquén lie between 40km and 60km north of the city, just north of the tiny town of San Patricio del Chañar. Of the five, Bodega Patritti (www.bodegaspatritti.com.ar) and Bodega Secreto Patagónico (www.secretopatagonico) have wine shops where you can purchase their vintages, whereas the other three run guided tours. Winery tour costs are typically waived if you purchase some wine or dine at the on-site restaurants.

Bodega Familia Schroeder An award-winning winery that produces nine wine ranges, two of which are named after the fossil of the dinosaur – Panamericansaurus schroederi – found on-site. There's an excellent restaurant serving three-course lunches (AR$500).

Bodega Malma A delightful winery where you can sample from its five wine ranges during hourly tours. Stay for lunch at their excellent on-site restaurant, known for its steaks and pastas.

Bodega del Fin del Mundo Patagonia's largest winery runs 45-minute tours that conclude with wine tasting from its 12 wine ranges.

East of Neuquén lie three more wineries, collectively referred to as the Bodegas de Río Negro. Of the three, Bodega Humberto Canale, off RN 22, is the only one that conducts in-depth tours that take you through each stage of the wine-making process, before culminating in wine tasting at the on-site museum (book ahead).

You'll need your own wheels to get to the vineyards, though Turismo Arauquen can get you out here, often in combination with a paleontological tour.