Land of Dinos and Vinos – Northern Patagonia

February 1, 2013

Patagonia is a region located at the southern end of South America. It is shared by the countries of Argentina and Chile. The term Patagonia was used by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 as his fleet made the first circumnavigation of the Earth. We will be making our own Patagonian circumnavigation of sorts, over the next few weeks, as we travel first south down the Argentinean side and then back up north through Chile.

Our first stop in Patagonia was in the city of Neuquén. Pronounced ‘No Kin’, Neuquén is the largest city in Patagonia with about 265,000 people. When we arrived in Neuquén after our third and final scheduled overnight bus journey, we had a problem. It was already hot when we left the bus at 7:45 am and we could not check into the hotel until noon, so using Sandy’s phone, we found a McDonald’s where we could eat some breakfast and relax in an air conditioned place for a couple of hours.

At about 11:00 am we decided to leave McDonald’s and began our walk of a little less than two miles (2.9 kilometers) to our hotel, which was on the other side of town. Our rolling duffels weigh even more than usual because we are also carrying our cruise gear with us. So, rolling our now close to 50 pound (23 kilogram) bags behind us, we set off walking on uneven sidewalks. The last portion of the walk was up hill to the location where Google Maps directed us. Out of breath, we stood in the heat at the intersection of two residential streets. No hotel or its street in sight.

We both whipped out our phones and checked several sources. All Internet searches pointed to this very intersection. We called the hotel and got their answering machine. It was getting hotter (now in the mid 90s F / 35 C), so we moved into the shade of a large tree to plot our next move. Darren tried asking a man passing by (in his broken Spanish) if he had heard of the hotel or knew where the street might be. After a couple of tries he received an answer pointing in the same general direction from two different people. Full of hope, we set off down the street, pulling our bags behind us. Unfortunately this information did not pan out and we hit another dead end. So we agreed that Darren would continue to look for the hotel, while Sandy stayed with all the luggage in a shady place. It took more trial and error, but we eventually found the hotel a few blocks in the opposite direction from where it was supposed to be on the map. We were happy to check in and immediately turn on the air conditioner in the room.

Neuquén is a working city, known for its rich oil deposits in the area. This region has also become famous as a center for paleontology (e.g. fossils) in Argentina. And, although not as well known as Mendoza, the Neuquén area hosts a handful of wineries. While we were here we wanted to spend a day exploring the area, so we booked an excursion entitled (in Spanish), “Dinos and Vinos” or “Dinosaurs and Wine” with a local tour guide.

Our guide drove us about 55 miles (88 kilometers) past some of the oil fields to Lake Barreales. Here, we visited The Lake Barreales Paleontological Center. Explorations began in this area in the year 2000, and since then about 300 fossil pieces have been excavated at this site. These finds represent a variety of dinosaurs, as well as crocodiles, tortoises, fishes and egg shells. This location is unique because it is the only dinosaur excavation site in Argentina that is open to the public.

We received a guided tour of the site by a Brazilian paleontologist. She showed us the types of rocks that fossils are found in, explained how they dig up and clean the bones and took us to a couple of active dig sites. It had rained hard a few days before so there were many puddles and no digging took place while we were there. After passing some giant dinosaur footprints, we also saw the working labs and then toured a small museum that displays some of the bones that have been excavated. The one that truly amazed us was the bones of the Futalognkosaurus. This dinosaur, whose name means “giant chief lizard’, was between 105 and 112 feet (32 and 34 meters) in length and its long neck contained 14 vertebrae. Included in our group were a family from Wales and their two young children. The young boy, Will, really enjoyed all the dinosaur exhibits.

Driving back towards Neuquén, we toured two wineries. They are part of a group that have been in place for only ten years. We learned about how the unique conditions of this region affect the vineyards and their grapes. Characteristic of this area is a strong wind, which keeps plant diseases down. The temperature variations between warm, sunny days and cool nights also affect the grape growth. The season’s harvesting begins in a couple of weeks, so the vineyards were bursting with grapes.

Our day of “Dinos and Vinos” provided us with a great perspective on this area. Neuquén was an interesting place to spend a few days to experience a real working city. Our next stops will put us back on the tourist path, as we travel to Bariloche and to two national parks: Nahuel Huapi and Los Glaciares.

Full Disclosure: We paid full price for our local tour and did not receive any remuneration for this story. Click above for more information.

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