Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

In the footsteps of dinosaurs

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Talampaya National Park

I pedalled back into the desert to visit the first of two national parks – Talampaya.  The park was established to protect both the important palaeontological and also archaeological sites in the area. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, Talampaya contains ‘the most complete continental fossil record known from the Triassic Period’ (between 251m and 199m years ago). In layman’s terms, the fossils found in the park provide a snapshot in time of the origins and early evolution on our planet of both dinosaurs and mammals.

The Triassic Period followed the great mass extinction (when 90-96% of all species were killed in the Earth’s most severe known extinction event – possibly due to a meteor hit, enormous volcanic erruptions, or a mass release of methane from the sea floor) and so began with an obliterated biosphere. It may have taken over 10 million years for the planet to recover its diversity in plants, animals, fish, and insects. A poignant and startling reminder to us given the rapid rate of species extinction on our own watch.

The crushing together of the tectonic plates since that time has pushed up and exposed multiple layers of deep red sedimentary rock, originally laid down during the Triassic period. This ancient landscape now reveals within it the fossilised remains of all kinds of plants and animals, revealing the story of the evolution of vertebrates and the birth of the age of the dinosaur.

Somehow though, despite all my excitement, the only dinosaurs I was able to see at Talampaya were plastic statues! You’ll have to keep reading on for the real deal…in the meantime, what I did see was some very well preserved petroglyphs (rock carvings), a stunning canyon and rock formations, an amazing sunset and a starry, starry night.

The Park contains the remains of indigenous peoples’ settlements, including these stunning petroglyphs very clearly depicting people, birds, llamas and guanacos. The petroglyphs were drawn up to 2000 years ago – amazingly well preserved thanks to the (now) dry climate.

Researchers believe some of the more abstract petroglyphs relate to attempts to communicate with the supernatural world and were possibly drawn under the influence of the hallucinogenic effects of some local vegetables used in rituals and religious beliefs at the time. Not everyone had access to the canyon. The people chosen to enter this area and to draw these images would have been born with high social or political status, and would have been given special religious roles to serve as mediators between the Gods and the community.

In the foreground – burial sites found in the rock. Urns containing human remains were found in these mortar holes.

Rock formation known as ‘La Catedral Gótica’, said to resemble La Sagrada Familia, the famous cathedral in Barcelona.

The Talampaya Canyon, about a mile long with walls towering up to 143 metres high. We saw a very cute armadillo, desert hares and desert emus in the canyon.

Served a glass of local Torrontes wine half way through the visit – now that’s my kind of tour!! Embarrassing cyclist’s tan lines also developing nicely despite being lathered in factor 50 head to toe every day…

‘El Monje’ – The Monk – standing here on his own at the end of the canyon, looking out across the open landscape.

Dinosaur statues – who’d have known?! The fossil remains of Lagosuchus Talampayenesis were found in this park – one of the very first dinosaurs known to have lived on the planet.

Camping out in the desert – there is a fantastic campsite in the park equipped with spotlessly clean hot showers and electrical points next to each pitch. Posters tell you what to do in case you come across a wild puma. Thankfully I had the place to myself aside from a few visits from the Andean desert foxes.

A big sunset.

Ischigualasto National Park (a.k.a. Valle de la Luna – Valley of the Moon)

Ischigualasto is adjacent to Talampaya, with the park entrances being 80km apart. I knew that I needed to get to Ischigualasto by 2pm to make sure I could get on a park tour, so got up early to pack up the tent. To my absolute horror it was raining!! These were my first spots of rain in over 3 months, and in the desert of all places. Thankfully it was pretty light and ran itself out by midday, but the day remained grey and cloudy (overcast also for the first time), and extremely windy (definitely NOT for the first time!).

After being buffeted by a headwind that stripped 10km/h off my average speed, I made it to the park just in time and wangled myself a space in the car of some very kind Argentinians, ready for the 3 hour park tour which is done in convoy. We were in the front car which also meant the benefit of having the guide along for the ride with us.

Ischigualasto did not disappoint.

With the same geological profile as Talampaya, Ischigualasto also exposes sedimentary rocks spanning the Triassic period. Many more fossils have been found in this area and Ischigualasto is regarded as the world’s premier location for dinosaur remains in terms of number, quality and significance.

During the Triassic period, most of the continents were concentrated in one giant C-shaped continent known as Pangaea. So dinosaur fossil species found in Ischigualasto have also been found in Brazil and as far afield as on the African continent. Interestingly, at the time when dinosaurs roamed these lands, they weren’t desert but rather lush, green lakelands covered in water. It’s the sendiment from these rivers that buried dead animals and enabled the unique combination of minerals, ideal temperatures and the extremely slow passing of time, to eventually replace the organic bone matter and create fossils in their place. Hard to imagine as the dry, sandy winds howl across the valley.

This place is a paleontologist’s idea of heaven and new studies continue to uncover more dinosaur fossils every year.

Fossil of ‘Ischigualastia‘ – the largest herbivore in Ischigualasto. Its strong and large bones are the easiest to find because they better resist the passing of time and erosion.

Scaphonixz – Reptiles, ancestors of dinosaurs and crocodiles – these were the most abundant animals in Ischigualasto. It’s most usual to find their skulls, as they are the most durable part of the skeleton.

Hanging out with the replicas in the museum

The ‘painted valley’ – layers of multicoloured sedimentary rock deposited in the past and then carved into river valleys which have since dried out

Surreal landscapes of dried out river beds

The canyon edge

Looking like a Dali painting

These boulders originally formed on the bottom of a river bed and were left behind once it dried out. They would have started as an insect or similar that began to gather layers of mineral deposits. As they were slowly spun around in the river, further layers of sediment built up creating these round boulders that resemble canon balls or a game of boules.

Like an onion, with the mineral layers in the centre and the sedimentary layers on the outside

Ischigualasto has constant winds of 20-40km/h as a minimum. The campsite was a glorified windswept car park but thankfully someone had put up a couple of sheets of panelling which I was able to squeeze behind to shelter from the wind.

Have to be careful to avoid the rather evil plethora of thorns when camping in the desert – don’t want one of these puncturing a tyre or sleeping mat!

Guanaco on the road from Talampaya to Ischigualasto – I’ve now seen the full complement of wild ‘camelids’ whilst cycling in South America.

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