An hour outside of El Calafate in Argentina, hidden to the thousands of people that rush by on the busy Ruta Quarenta, lies a valley preserved in time for millennia. In the middle of the private Estancia Sant Teresita lies a whole valley with some amazing stories to tell but because it is on private land you can’t just drive up to it. Thankfully specialist tours are run courtesy of Walk Patagonia with your own geology and paelontology expert who will unlock the secrets hiding in the amazing Petrified Forest of La Leona.
110km from both El Chalten and El Calafate just off the fabled Ruta Quarenta, the Route 66 of South America (but its so much more than that), you first have to pass another historical outpost from yesteryear.
Estancia La Leona is a unassuming building on first glance, typical of what you would expect of colonial America, here in the deep south of Argentina. Oh, but if these walls could talk! It was here soon after it was built in 1894 that Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (and Ethel Place, Sundance’s wife) made an unscheduled pit stop on their run from the law after robbing the Banco de Tarapacá y Argentino in Río Gallegos 350km south.
There is so much more history here than just that, as you will find on the walls of this charming tea house, hotel and small museum on your breakfast stop. Many famous climbing expeditions have started from here but Butch and Sundance will forever be entwined with this place.
The hotel exists thanks to an old river crossing that served local farmers wanting to cross the windy La Leona river with their livestock until 1974 when the bridge that you see now finally opened. The boats could only accommodate 200 animals at a time and with herds thousands strong there could be quite the wait. Seeing an opportunity, the Jensens, who were Danish immigrants simultaneously started work on Hotel La Leona to put up and serve the waiting farmers.
Inside you will find the charmingly restored saloon which now serves fantastic coffee and some of the best homemade chocolate cake in Argentina along with a small gift shop selling the usual array of trinkets to passing tourists on their way to or from El Chalten and the famous Mt Fitzroy (more on that in another post).
Hotel La Leona is a wonderful respite from the all too long driving distances in southern Argentina and sitting exactly halfway between the two most popular towns in the area its ideally suited for a quick breakfast or lunch stop in either direction. If you’re in the area you really should take half an hour out of your day to check it out.
Turning onto a dirt track guarded by a solitary gate with a padlock, you are 10km away from starting your trek. You will feel every inch of those 10km as you gingerly make your way along the pot holed track to the start point of the walk along an an unassuming somewhat windswept hill top ridge. This wouldn’t be the Patagonian Steppe without a little breeze after all. Before descending into the canyons admire the backdrop of the mighty Andes and, on a clear day, Mount Fitzroy towering over the tourist town of El Chalten.
Sheltered from the wind in the long since dry river canyons, the Petrified Forest is perfect for observing what life was like in Earth’s distant past. Roughly 70 million years ago this was a very different place. Full of towering forests, rivers, dinosaurs and a very humid atmosphere. The proof lies in the rocks all around you. Although on first glance you may not pick out the details in the now barren and dusty plains of the Patagonian Steppe.
Look closer and all around you, you will find fossils of ancient wildlife and plants. Dotted everywhere are the shattered remains of once living trees, long since petrified and worn down by the unrelenting elements that are a permanent fixture on the Steppe.
Dropping down into the valley a short walk from your drop off point, the temperature rises almost instantly once you are out of the gusty wind. Suddenly, the inhospitable nature of these surroundings is all to evident as your throat dries up and you find yourself reaching for your water bottle.
Scattered all around are dinosaur fossils, petrified tree trunks, giant rock overhangs and unrelenting heat. Even in the shade the heat is inescapable. For the brief moments you climb up a small hill the wind is a welcome relief until you remember that the wind is the one thing dehydrating you more than most else. Without water here you wouldn’t survive even a day in the height of summer. It is that inhospitable.
Dotted sparingly amongst the dust and fossils there is some sign of life in the form of small vibrant green shrubs. There is no ground water here, if any rain falls it almost instantly evaporates. The plants instead have adapted to use the early morning mist that shrouds the area before the sun burns it off.
Water molecules suspended in the air collect on the leaves of the plants until they grow too heavy and form water droplets that are funnelled to the heart of the plant. The amount of moisture in the mist is enough to support the plant through the searing heat of the rest of the day until the temperature drops and the mist forms again overnight.
Design by nature once again overcomes ridiculously adverse odds to prove that life can happen. Just don’t go expecting to see a living forest. Lack of groundwater and extreme temperature fluctuations; sub zero night time temperatures coupled with a 50+ degree shift to the other end of the spectrum in the day mean that only small things can survive out here.
Dropping back down into the canyons the going gets a little more adventurous in the heat of the mid afternoon sun. The walls of rock carved millennia ago by ancient rivers begin to draw in closer and getting over, under and around the natural obstacles sometimes take a little bit of planning. The sheer rock faces and overhangs bring a claustrophobic feel the the surrounding area until, turning once last corner, the river bed opens up once more revealing our trail back up to the waiting vehicle.
Standing on the canyon rim looking down at the ancient river route meandering into the distance, the warm breeze was somehow
refreshing for the briefest moment. Contrasting beautifully with the previous hour crawling through the dusty river course I wondered why more people don’t take this tour.
Then again, if this tour was more widely offered it wouldn’t be quite so special. You wouldn’t have an entire canyon system and petrified forest to a small group of 15 or so people. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the ancient history not only of the canyon by the surrounding area and bring it vividly to life during the walk and 20 minute lunch stop on a picturesque river bend sheltered from the wind and the sun.
The tour is advertised as a walk through the ancient past in the setting of a petrified forest but it is so much more than that. The sum of all its parts; the setting, La Leona stop, included lunch, expert tour guide, relaxed atmosphere and the feeling of having an entire canyon to yourself for an afternoon make this tour one of the unexpected highlights of all my experiences in Argentina.
If you find yourself lucky enough to be in El Calafate or El Chalten, spending an afternoon walking through dried up river beds surrounded by giant petrified tree trunks and thousands of fossils may sound like a school outing for the local geology class but I promise, if you take this tour you will be amazed by the stunning views, learn countless details about the local area, cherish memories that will last you forever and spend an afternoon in your own canyon and that is something we will seldom have the chance to do.
El Calafate and El Chalten together make up the top adrenalin double act in southern Patagonia. The foreboding glaciers of Glacier National Park near El Calafate and the trekking capital of Argentina, El Chalten, 220km north with the ominous peak of one of the worlds hardest mountains to summit, Mount Fitzroy as a backdrop. La Leona and the Petrified Forest is the middle ground but most people drive by unaware of the treasure that lies within.
Those willing to try something a little out of the ordinary are rewarded on this tour with an unforgettable adventure.