Along the wind-scoured Route 40, Patagonia looms large before the traveler. The Andes mark a jagged border with Chile and sparse settlements appear like mirages. This is Argentina’s Patagonia National Park, a region replete with ancient rock art, wild herds of llama-like guanaco and untrammeled trails.

Those planning a trek around the toothy Fitz Roy Massif in El Chalten should consider this detour to the lesser-known northern reaches of Santa Cruz province.

A hiker surrounded by a short canyon of red rock walls in Argentina's Patagonia National Park
A hiker on the Tierra del Colores trail in the Cañadon Pinturas section of Patagonia National Park, Province of Santa Cruz, Argentina © Courtesy of CLT Argentina / Beth Wald

Created in 2015, Argentina's Patagonia National Park shares the same name as a new national park just over the border in Chile. At 444,680 acres, it’s over twice as large as New York City. A quarter of the park already has national park status, while the rest remains under restoration by the nonprofit Conservation Land Trust (CLT Argentina).

In the middle of the Patagonian steppe, its landscape of rainbow hills, big mesas and serpentine trails is a dead ringer for the deserts of the Southwestern US. But it’s also uniquely Argentinian, a region where endemic species are making a comeback and where the shadows of past civilizations are still painted on rock walls.

It's marked by a nomadic past

Some 9000 years ago, nomads, now referred to as pre-Tehuelches, inhabited this region. They passed the summers hunting large herds of guanaco for skins and meat, retreating to lower ground and sheltered canyons for the cold winter months.

Remnants of their presence abound in the region, from obsidian arrowheads to hunting parapets and burial sites. Curiously, they told their story by leaving handprints on recessed cliff walls, their scarlet outlines applied by mineral paint blown through a hollow bone straw – hence the name, Cueva de las Manos.

Ancient handprints in reddish tones decorate the walls of Cueva de las Manos in Argentina's Patagonia National Park
The handprints of Cueva de las Manos are an eerie reminder of the people who lived in the area thousands of years ago © Courtesy of CLT Argentina / Beth Wald

Though there are hundreds of examples of rock art in the region, Cueva de las Manos is the most impressive. This world-class archeological site features thousands of these hands in overlapping collage, with samples dating back as far as 7370 BC. Against the silent backdrop of the canyon, the sight is chilling.

They also left behind scenes of guanaco hunts, dancers and anthropomorphic figures. Of eight hundred images ranging from child-sized to adult, over 90 percent are left hands, with one that has six fingers.

Most visitors access the site via a 28km (17-mile) gravel access road, but for visitors to Cañadon Pinturas it’s also possible to hike to the site via the Traditional Canyon Crossing, a three-hour, 2.6km (1.6 miles) trail round-trip. Though the descent is steep, it’s a straight shot across the canyon, following a small footbridge over the Pinturas River. You will have great views of the archeological site during most of the approach.

Rock formations under a cloudy sky in Cañadon Pinturas, of Argentina's Patagonia National Park
A view from the Yaten Trail in Cañadon Pinturas © Courtesy of CLT Argentina / Beth Wald

It has miles of trails to roam 

There are two main sections of Patagonia National Park you can explore, although new infrastructure plans are in development that will open up other areas of the park.

Just outside Los Antiguos at the northwestern end of the park, the park headquarters is housed in the former estancia (small farm or ranch) of La Ascensión, with camping and access to windy Lago Buenos Aires. This is where the Meseta Trail starts.

The park’s longest and most difficult hike, Meseta Trail follows a gurgling stream across the steppe (at 300m/984 feet) before climbing to the mesa top (1500m/4921 feet). The full loop is an intense 16km (10-mile), eight-hour round-trip, which also can be divided with an overnight in the backcountry at a designated campsite.

The greatest variety of trails are in the Cañadon Pinturas, in the future southeast section of the park. The base of this portal is La Posta, a lodge 52km (32 miles) south of Perito Moreno.

For panoramic views, hike La Guanaca Trail, the 3.5km (2.1 miles), two-hour round-trip climbs La Guanaca peak. It’s not a huge ascent, but still affords 360-degree views of alabaster and red rock splendor, peering over a cliff edge into the Pinturas River Canyon.

From the same parking area, Yaten Trail takes you into the river canyon to an old abandoned puesto, a shelter once used as a seasonal base for ranching. Alongside the river, it’s a gentle walk to continue to the Cueva de las Manos or return in a loop ascending via the Traditional Canyon Crossing. The 9.6km (6 miles) trail takes 5-8 hours round-trip (including a visit to the archeological site).

A herd of guanacos atop a ridgeline under a blue sky in Argentina's Patagonia National Park
A herd of guanacos on the horizon © Carolyn McCarthy / Lonely Planet

Native wildlife are returning

The newly protected areas are helping wildlife make a significant comeback to this ranching region.

In the 21st century, experts have found that it's not enough to simply designate land a national park for its protection. In order to fully restore an ecosystem, all the original native species must be present.

In Patagonia, that means allowing the return of apex predators, like the puma, and ensuring that there’s also a healthy population of other fauna, including armadillo and Darwin’s rhea, an ostrich relative with spindly legs that zigzag in retreat.

The rewilding team of CLT Argentina is putting radio collars on puma, guanaco and vizcacha (a species of rodent with a tail and long ears) to better understand these animals’ behavior and movement. Biologist staff are optimistic that puma watching, a successful activity near Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, could make an important addition to conservation-based tourism here.

A vizacacha suns itself on a rock in Argentina's Patagonia National Park
You don’t need a radio signal to find vizcacha – on any sunny day they can be found sunbathing on the rocks like summer beachgoers © Carolyn McCarthy / Lonely Planet

Against bluebird skies, Andean condors with wingspans like Pterodactyls riff on the thermals above the canyon, and guanacos, though greatly reduced from their historic numbers, bound across the tawny steppe.

For now, the puma remains somewhat elusive, but with conservation efforts ramping up, the future is bright. Visitors will find enough of a thrill in returning to the nomadic origins of Patagonia National Park.

How to visit Argentina’s Patagonia National Park

Lodging

In Cañadon Pinturas

La Posta (reservations +54 9 297 433-6261; parquepatagonia.arg@gmail.com) With a handful of excellent trails onsite, this renovated estancia lodge is the best place to stay for hikers and long-distance cyclists. It’s a peaceful retreat to the middle of nowhere, with tame rheas browsing the grounds. It features eight rooms, solar power, onsite dining and wifi. Reservations possible after the lodge inauguration in November, 2019.

In Perito Moreno

Hostería Municipal (Estrada 1099, 011-15-2260-6666, d AR$2068 incl breakfast) On a hill behind Perito Moreno’s center, this tidy city-run lodging is a good value, with a bright breakfast hall and good service. Open year-round.

Near Los Antiguos

La Ascensión Camping (free) at the park headquarters, with covered picnic areas, adjacent to Lago Buenos Aires. On the Mesa Loop Trail, there is backcountry camping at designated sites with small huts available for cooking and composting latrines.

Attractions

Parque Nacional Patagonia (free) Official website of Argentina National Parks.

Parque Patagonia Website by CLT Argentina with excellent maps and information on regional attractions and trails of this future national park.

Cueva de las Manos 9am-7pm, 400 pesos, visit by hourly guided tour.

Museo Carlos Gradin (museogradin@gmail.com; open 9am-1pm & 4pm-8pm Wed-Fri, 4pm-8pm Sat-Sun; adults/kids AR$200/free) In Perito Moreno, this new museum pays homage to a pioneer of archaeology in the region. Visitors learn about nomadic culture and history as well as how cave paintings were created. With a special section for kids and informative guided tours (in Spanish).

Guided tours

The following regionally-based agencies bring visitors to Patagonia National Park and Cueva de las Manos:

Zoyen Turismo In Perito Moreno, with exclusive rights to tour Alero Charcamata, an excellent rock art site on private grounds.

Chelenco In Los Antiguos, offers bi-national loop tours visiting national parks in Chile and Argentina.

Transportation

Now mostly paved, Ruta 40 can be traveled by car but a high-clearance vehicle is your best bet, with 4WD useful for some side trips. Taqsa (+54 2062 493130) and Chalten Travel have bus connections between Perito Moreno or Los Antiguos to the major tourist destinations of El Chalten (south) and Bariloche (north).

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