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Monday, 04 December 2006

Payunia: The Earth's Origins Offer a New Look at Mendoza

Written by Christian Denes
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The province of Mendoza is rapidly becoming one of the hottest travel spots in Argentina. And with good reason: It produces 70 percent of the country’s wine and boasts labels rated among the best in the world. It is also home to the acclaimed dry powders of Las Leñas ski resort, the white waters of the Mendoza River, and the volcanic summit of Aconcagua: a climber’s dream with numerous glaciers and the highest peak outside of Asia.


While bodegas, rivers and mountains may be Mendoza’s most popular destinations, they are not its most unique. The most stunning scenery in Mendoza (and perhaps in the country, alongside Iguazu Falls and Perito Moreno Glacier) is in Payunia, at the southern tip of the province.



Payunia is a 450-000 hectare nature reserve with lava fields stretching out to the horizon. La Pasarela delimits the park, where the emerald green Rio Grande has forced its way through solid volcanic rock. Beyond the river is a striking black landscape of volcanic gravel cut by brush strokes of red minerals, swaths of sprouting yellow grass, yardang erosion rock features and, of course, volcanoes.


In fact, Payunia has the highest concentration of volcanic cones in the world. A recent survey by Corina Risso of the University of Buenos Aires puts the total around 800, although there are likely more. It was the turbulent nature of these volcanoes that created Payunia’s astounding scenery – at times resembling some far-distant planet, at others offering a glimpse of what our own planet may have looked like in its beginnings.payunia

While tourists may just be getting to know the area, it has been a favorite of oil companies for decades. Above wine and tourism, oil is the most important source of income for Mendoza, and the Payunia area holds some of the largest reserves. The oil industry’s exploits are immediately noticeable in the bobbing oil pumps scattered throughout the region. But these pumps slowly disappear along the outskirts of the reserve and are not present at all once inside.


Thankfully, the area has also received attention from conservationist groups, scientists and government. In 1982, a young agronomist named Ramón Martínez joined forces with the “Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina” (Argentina Wildlife Foundation) to take the first steps toward preserving the region and, in 1988, Payunia was declared a protected reserve.

payuniaSince then, a collaborative of the municipal and provincial governments, non-profits and private businesses have undertaken a series of major studies to help revert the oil industry’s past impact, and prevent future damage. As Santiago, owner and guide of Karen Travel remarks, “Today, there is excellent communication between the park rangers, oil companies, businesses and travel agencies, and the conservation effort is quite effective. Of course, due to the reserve’s great size, the park rangers are sometimes stretched a little thin. But all of us – me as a guide for instance – also have to do our part in watching over the area.”


This collaboration has led to projects dividing the reserve into zones according to use, designating expert ecologists and park ranger staff, promoting local culture and protecting wildlife habitats. Today, the park is an official reserve to the guanaco (a relative of the Llama), and is also home to choiques (an ostrich-like bird), ground hogs, Patagonian maras, vizcachas, chinchillas, tunduques, pumas, Patagonian zorrillas or chiñes, and grey foxes.

payuniaAnother result of this collaborative effort is the strict monitoring of activity within the park and, as a result, all visits must be done with an official tour company. There is no need to worry about the volcanoes themselves – they have been harmless for years. But everyone in the area gives an emphatic warning to those who would disregard the park’s protective regulation: Payunia’s size and disorienting landscape make it very easy to get lost.


The area is so immense it has been dubbed the “Black Pampas” in reference to the wide green Pampas plains where Argentina’s world-famous cows graze. Yet without signs or roads, the guides manage to distinguish between the few tracks the park ranger and tour company jeeps leave behind in the volcanic gravel.




payuniaThe best option for visiting Payunia is traveling to the small town of Malargüe. Roughly a six-hour drive from the city of Mendoza, it is the closest starting point for tours. While the tour to Payunia makes for a long day at 12 hours, the incremental escape from civilization is well worth it. Overnight trips are available as well. Either way, the guides come prepared in the morning with plenty of croissants, coffee and mate (Argentine tea), hefty sandwiches and quiches for lunch, and conversation to last throughout.

payuniaAs tourism has really begun to take off in Argentina over the past 5 years, Payunia and the Malargüe area are only just beginning to gain attention from outsiders. Payunia has recently been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Malargüe is slowly being recognized as the perfect base for skiing Las Leñas (for those adverse to the luxury hotels of the ski resort itself), caving in the Caverna de las Brujas, and visiting the Payén and Laguna Llancancelo fauna reserves.


In addition to tourism, the Pierre Auger Observatory (worth $50 million) was recently built outside Malargüe: to study the highest energy particles in the universe as they reach Earth in the form of cosmic rays. Interest has also been expressed in creating an official volcano research park in Payunia.


The excitement in the area is tangible. Never before has such a diverse variety of outsiders been present: from scientists to skiers to backpackers. Today, the area is seeing a future based not in exploiting the region’s resources, but in sharing a view of its natural wonders.payunia







©Christian Denes

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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