Where there’s oil, there are dinosaurs, and Neuquén’s sedimentary steppe is one of Argentina’s late-Cretaceous hot spots. By rental car, a triangle of sites northwest, west, and southwest of the provincial capital makes an ideal (if long) full-day excursion, though one of these, Lago Barreales, is more difficult to reach and is best in fall and winter. The other two, Plaza Huincul and Villa El Chocón, are easily accessible by public transportation.
Yacimiento Paleontológico Lago Los Barreales
The best place to see an on-site excavation is this reservoir northwest of Neuquén, where paleontologists demonstrate the separation and rescue of fossil deposits as well as the cleaning and extraction of the fossils themselves. Beasts in the sediments here include the sauropod Futalognkosaurus (a long-tailed quadruped with a long neck and small head), teropods (bipedal carnivores with huge claws such as Megaraptor), and ornithopods (small bipedal herbivores) along with bivalves, crocodiles, turtles, and pterosaurs.
Only when the water level falls in autumn, usually in early April, can the Museo de Geología y Paleontología de la Universidad Nacional del Comahue, under Jorge Calvo, resume its work, so this is the ideal time to go. There is now an interpretative trail with some fossils in situ, and an improvised museum in a Nissen hut.
On Barreales’s north shore, the Yacimiento Paleontológico Lago Los Barreales (Avenida Megaraptor 1450, RP 1 Km 65, tel. 0299/15-404-8614, www.proyectodino.com.ar) is open 9 a.m.–7 p.m. daily. Guided tours cost US$6 pp for Argentines, US$12.50 pp for foreigners, and US$4 for children under 12. Foreign university students can hire on to participate in the digs (for a price).
Actually reaching the site can be complicated, but the simplest route is to take RP 7 from Cipolletti almost to Añelo, about 100 kilometers northwest of Neuquén, and then turn south on a gravel road to the north shore of Barreales. It’s now well-signed but still requires close attention, and there are plenty of heavy trucks kicking up dust.
Museo Municipal Carmen Funes (Plaza Huincul)
At the oil town of Plaza Huincul, about midway between Neuquén and Zapala, the municipal museum’s prize exhibit is a replica skeleton of Argentinosaurus huinculensis, the world’s largest dinosaur at 35 meters long and 18 meters high. So large is the herbivore A. huinculensis that an adult male human barely reaches its knee, and one of its dorsal vertebrae measures 1.6 meters.
Former oil worker Guillermo Heredia found the fossil only three kilometers away, along the highway, in 1987. In addition to the imposing skeleton, there are models of the carnivorous Mapusaurus and several smaller dinosaurs, a clutch of dinosaur eggs some 80 million years old, and remains of crocodiles found in Picún Leufú, about 75 kilometers to the south.
In expanded quarters along the highway, the Museo Municipal Carmen Funes (Avenida Córdoba 55, tel. 0299/496-5486, museocarmenfunes [at] copelnet [dot] com [dot] ar, US$1) is open 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Monday–Friday, 9:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. weekends and holidays.
Plaza Huincul, 110 kilometers west of Neuquén via RN 237 and RN 22, has an Oficina de Informes (RN 22 s/n, tel. 0299/496-7637) directly on the highway. Buses from Neuquén are frequent and comfortable.
Museo Paleontológico Municipal Ernesto Bachmann (Villa El Chocón)
Plaza Huincul boasts the world’s largest herbivore, but Villa El Chocón claims its carnivorous counterpart in Giganotosaurus carolinii. Above the Embalse Exequiel Ramos Mexía, an enormous hydroelectric reservoir southwest of Neuquén, the municipal museum also features models of Carnotaurus and the smaller Pianitzkysaurus. There are also dinosaur tracks in the vicinity.
G. carolinii takes its name from amateur paleontologist Rubén Carolini, who discovered the fossil; Rodolfo Coria, Leonardo Salgado, and Jorge Calvo first identified it. Measuring 14 meters in length and 4.65 meters high at the hip, it weighed up to eight tons.
Unfortunately, because the massive hydroelectric dam drowned the Río Limay’s sedimentary canyon here, many probable paleontological sites have disappeared beneath the water. The Museo Paleontológico Municipal Ernesto Bachmann (8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily, US$1.25) also offers exhibits on the area’s archaeology and a whitewashed history of the dam and former estancia owner Manuel Bustigorry.
Villa El Chocón, 136 kilometers southwest of Neuquén via RN 237, originated as a company town during the dam’s construction. The Dirección Municipal de Turismo (tel. 0299/490-1223), at the northern approach to town off RN 22, is open 8 a.m.–7 p.m. daily; there’s a paleontological excavation site within easy walking distance.
On the shoreline, La Posada del Dinosaurio (tel. 0299/490-1200, www.posadadinosaurio.com.ar, US$68 d) offers excellent accommodations, with a good, reasonably priced restaurant and outstanding service. Camping also exists nearby.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition