10.06.2020 –

Exploring Patagonia National Park in Argentina

Two recently created national parks in Argentina and Chile represent the essence of everything Patagonia is about. On this corner in Southern South America, there is a new touristic circuit covering both countries and sharing a name that says it all: Patagonia National Park. In this post we are going to tell you about the Argentinian side of these amazing areas and everything it has to offer.

Patagonia National Park is one of the last national park declared in Argentina, and the first one protecting the high plateaus of Santa Cruz province, a unique environment that thus far did not have any kind of protection. It also includes a significant sample of the Patagonian steppe, an ecoregion (despite its huge surface) poorly represented on the national parks systems. The park was created in 2015 as a result of an initiative of the ONGs Aves Argentinas and Asociación Ambiente Sur. Their main target was to protect the habitat of the Hooded Grebe, a one-of-a-kinf waterfowl endemic of the high lagoons of the Buenos Aires, Strobel, and Cardiel plateaus, on the center and the north of Santa Cruz.

The target was to protect the habitat of the Hooded Grebe, a one-of-a-kind waterfowl endemic of the high lagoons of the Buenos Aires, Strobel, and Cardiel plateaus, on the center and the north of Santa Cruz

The habitat of the Hooded Grebe (Podiceps gallardoi) is so remote that the specie was not discovered until 1974. From 2009, during monitoring campaigns, researchers reported a serious decline in the size of its population of this already rare species. In 2012 they estimated a total population of no more than 800 individuals, an 80% decline in less than 25 years. Then all the alarm bells started ringing, and the environmental organizations started to allocate more and more resources to save this species of and extinction that seemed inevitable. You can learn more about this process in the documentary "The Dusk of The Hooded grebe" (in Spanish).

Once the ONG Fundación Flora y Fauna Argentina purchased several cattle ranches of the area and donated them to the Estate, in 2015 the Patagonia National was finally created. Located in the Buenos Aires Lake plateau, it protects almost 53,000 hectares of Patagonian steppe, with some of the main lagoons where the hooded grebes breed every summer.

As for tourism, Patagonia National Park links towns and sites that make a touristic circuit with great potential, such as Perito Moreno, Cueva de las Manos, Los Antiguos, the Mount Zeballos Road and Lago Posadas. All these places surround the park's territory, giving them a great chance to develop ecotourism projects in the area.

Patagonia National Park links towns and sites that make a touristic circuit with great potential, such as Perito Moreno, Cueva de las Manos, Los Antiguos, the Mount Zeballos Road and Lago Posadas.
Map of Patagonia National Park area
Map of Patagonia National Park area

As for now, the easiest way to access the park is through Portal La Ascensión, located on the house of an old cattle ranch by the Buenos Aires Lake, just a few miles away from Los Antiguos. The ranch was donated to the national park recently. There are several trails to hike in the area, such us the one to Cerro La Calle and the COA lagoon, and the trail to the plateau, the hardest one, that goes up from the main house to the border of the Buenos Aires plateau. In December 2019 we had the chance to do this trek, reaching the first small lagoons of the plateau. Surrounded by a truly lunar landscape we were lucky enough to see a group of 25 hooded grebes that had just reached the area. You can see some footage of this magical moment on our YouTube channel.

The most renowned tourist attraction of the area is the Cave of Hands, one of the one of the most important archeological sites in South America, featuring cave paintings that are the most ancient artistic expressions of the native people of the subcontinent. The site was declared World Heritage by the UNESCO in 1999. The paintings were done by the firsts settlers of these lands, ancestors of the Tehuelche people (or Patagones), dating back to different periods from 9.300 and 3.300 years ago. The most iconic are the negative silhouettes of hands; there are 829 of these. Apart from the hands, other paintings represent haunting scenes, depicting animals like guanacos and rheas, together with human figures. On the paintings of the last period, there are also reptiles and geometric motifs; their meaning is unclear but they must be related with rituals and ceremonies of a spiritual nature. 

The Cave of Hands is one of the one of the most important archeological sites in South America, featuring cave paintings that are the most ancient artistic expressions of the native people of the subcontinent.
Cave of Hands
Cave of Hands

The cave is indeed one of the stone walls of the amazing Pinturas River Canyon, an impressive basaltic formation of 200 m high and 150 Km long made by the erosion produced by the melting of the glaciers during the Pleistocene. The cave and the canyon are nor part of the national park, they are part of a provincial park and managed by Fundación Flora y Fauna thorough the Portal Río Pinturas, located on the former Estancia Los Toldos, just a few miles away from Route 40. There are several hiking trails in the area, including one that goes down the conyon to the Pinturas River and then up again on the other side, where the cave paintings are. It is also a great spot to sight the wildlife of the Patagonian Steppe, with plenty of guanacos, lesser rheas, armadillos, condors, and if you are lucky, pumas and Wolffsohn's viscachas, and endemic species of Santa Cruz province.

Hiking the Pinturas River Canyon to the Cave of Hands
Hiking the Pinturas River Canyon to the Cave of Hands

On the opposite side of the Buenos Aires Lake plateau, there is another great attraction: the Mount Zeballos Road, a scenic route going from Los Antiguos to Lago Posadas through amazing landscapes including sttepe, forest, high grasslands, high peaks and old estancias that still produce sheep wool. The road is unpaved and only suitable for 4WD vehicles. It is the highest road in Santa Cruz, reaching 1,500 m on El Portazuelo, on the base of Mount Zeballos. This mount is the remains of an old volcano that collapsed, leaving a striking landscape of fine sand and volcanic rocks eroded in fanciful shapes.

Mount Zeballos Road is a scenic route going from Los Antiguos to Lago Posadas through amazing landscapes including sttepe, forest, high grasslands, high peaks and old estancias
Mount Zeballos
Mount Zeballos

From El Portezuelo the road goes down, and from the other side, if the clouds allow it, they are great views of the mighty Mount San Lorenzo, of 3,706 m, on the Chilean border. It is one of the highest peaks in Patagonia, a huge wall covered by glaciers. It was climbed for the first time in 1943 by the missionary and explorer Alberto de Agostini, together with two European mountaneers settled in Bariloche: Alejandro Hemmi from Switzerland and Heriberto Schmoll from Austria. The Mount Zeballos Road continues to Roballos Pass, which leads to the Chilean Patagonia Park through a series of lagoons and wetlands filled with waterfowl including Chilean Flamingos, Black-necked Swans, Upland Geese and Chiloe Wigeons, plus the occasional foxes and armadillos crossing the road. From Roballos Pass the route to Lago Posadas goes through several ranches, sprinkled with salty lagoons that, except in spring, are mostly dry.

Mount San Lorenzo
Mount San Lorenzo

Lago Posadas is a small village of barely 300 people founded around the house of the old Estancia Posadas. This place was a crossroads for the carts that used to take the wool production from the ranches to Puerto San Julián, on the Atlantic coast. In 1959, in the context of the border conflict between with Chile, the Argentinian government decided to found a town to reinforce its sovereignty over the Posadas and Pueyrredon valleys. Nowadays, the main activity in Lago Posadas apart from the public services is tourism. Lakes Posadas and Pueyrredong are great spots for trout and salmon fly-fishing. There are also very good hikes to Cerro Indio (with cave paintings similar to the ones in Cueva de las Manos), the Oro River gorge, and the approach to Mount San Lorenzo.

Lake Posadas and the Stone Arch
Lake Posadas and the Stone Arch

The area is filled with interesting geological formations, attracting experts doing geological research. The most renowned is the "Stone Arch", an amazing rock formation eroded in the middle by the erosion of the Lake Posadas water that is the most iconic image of the area. Lakes Posadas and Pueyrredon are split by a narrow isthmus, with the peculiarity of having different colors: Posadas displays a turquoise blue, while Pueyrredon's color is a much darker and deep blue. Pueyrredon is much larger. covering a long valley along the northwest, continuing on Chile's territory, where is named Lake Cochrane.

Pueyrredon Lake is much larger, covering a long valley along the northwest, continuing on Chile's territory, where is named Lake Cochrane.

From Roballos Pass you can also take route 41 to the East, around the Buenos Aires Lake plateau to Bajo Caracoles, on Route 40. It is an extremely lonely road, with almost no vehicles passing by, but very beautiful, with great views of the Ghio Lake, with its turqoise-blue waters and the edge of the plateau on its south side. The route goes by part or Patagonia National Park, but for the moment there is no public access to the park, as there are no roads or trails going up into the plateau.

Roballos Pass
Roballos Pass

Definitely, an exceptional touristic circuit that luckily is still unexploited, allowing to experience pure Patagonia, far from the crowds that you sometimes find in places like Bariloche, El Calafate or El Chalten. I strongly recommend this circuit for photographers, the sceneries are simply amazing and to birders and wildlife watchers, as you can find and watch closely most of the native species of the Patagonia steppe. The tours can be combined with the recently created Patagonia National Park on the Chilean side, that we will cover on our next post. If you want to take a tour around this area, do not hesitate to get in touch with us, we know all its secrets, so we can design a great itinerary according to your interests.

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