The Dinosaur Route
It's a marvellous adventure, the Dinosaur Route in northwest Patagonia. The skeletons of the biggest dinosaurs ever to have walked the planet are, paleontologists insist, buried in this region's red-rock badlands; and discoveries to date in the area have forced scientists to rethink established theories of dinosaur size and behaviour.
The fossilised skeleton of the biggest dinosaur ever to roam the planet was discovered near Plaza Huincul, in the badlands of northwest Patagonia. Argentinosaurus huinculensis was a herbivore that weighed the equivalent of over 20 adult elephants, stood as tall as a three-storey building, and stretched to 125ft (38m) in length. It existed 90 million years ago, when the Andes were hillocks and the arid badlands of North Patagonia were steamy jungle and lush savannah grassland.
On the outskirts of a second, nearby town, scientists unearthed the skeleton of Giganotosaurus Carolinii, a ferocious carnivore and predator of Argentinosaurus. Giganotosaurus was, according to paleontologist Dr. Jorge Calvo, a terrifying spectacle: a 10-ton meat-eater that was 46ft (14m) long and 23ft (7m) tall. Giganotosaurus hunted Argentinosaurus in packs, stalking and felling the giant leaf-eater before ripping it apart with serrated teeth eight inches long – teeth which protruded from a skull bigger in size than a modern-day bathtub. (Dr. Calvo likes a metaphor.)
Villa El Chocón
The fossilised skeleton of Giganotosaurus is housed at the dinosaur museum at Villa El Chocón. Villa El Chocón is a small town on the shore of a beautiful artificial lake. It's a non-descript little spot, but its museum is a marvel. Inside, the skeleton of Giganotosaurus lies flat on a sandy bed. It's an astonishing 80% intact.
On the outskirts of Villa El Chocón, you can see footprints of another prehistoric giant, Iguanadon, imprinted on the shore. Iguanadon was a bulky herbivore with conical spiky thumbs for defense against predators. It deposited its gigantic footprints here some 120 million years ago and they remain perfectly preserved.
A third site, Lago Barreales, is a sapphire lake within a landscape of red and orange rock faces. On the lake's northern shore, a fossil of a giant femur bone, bigger than an adult man, leans against a rock-face and signals your arrival at the Lago Barreales Paleontological Center. The femur belongs to Futalognkosaurus, an enormous leaf-eater discovered at this spot. It rivaled Argentinosaurus for size, and had a powerful tail, which it used to swat away predators.
Get in on the action
Lago Barreales is unique in Latin America paleontology as it's an excavation site that receives overnight guests – albeit in rustic trailers (which only add to the awesome sense of adventure). Its guests – called sponsors by Centre staff – join paleontologists in the field, and it's thrilling. You feel like Indiana Jones. (Just four sponsors at a time are permitted to stay at any one time.)
Under a desert sun, to a backdrop of the Andes Mountains, scientists teach sponsors how to read the 100 million year old landscape and how to recognize fossil signs in prehistoric rock. Sponsors work side-by-side with a site scientist: using hammer and chisel to free fossils from hard rock; molding of bone replicas for display at the on-site laboratory. Mealtimes are spent with Centre staff, most often Argentinian asado, under the Patagonian stars.
Dr. Calvo, who pioneers paleontological tourism in Latin America, says: 'Our aim is that sponsors really get to feel part of the team...that after two days every sponsor really feels as if he or she is a paleontologist.'
Staff at Lago Barreales will also drives travellers to other spots on the Dinosaur Route including the museum at Plaza Huincul to see the partial skeleton of the biggest dinosaur ever to thunder across Earth. The vertebrae alone of Argentinosaurus measure 5ft (1.5m) in height. It's a spine-tingling spectacle.