On the waterless western slopes of the Sierra de Sañogasta, Talampaya’s colorful canyon country is a jumble of wildly eroded landscapes that draws more overseas visitors than any other part of La Rioja.
Many combine it with a trip to San Juan Province’s Parque Provincial Ischigualasto , colloquially known as the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).
Talampaya takes its name from a Quechua term with sacred allusions, meaning “Dry Riverbed of the Tala,” where the tala tree once grew. While the riverbed may be dry, running water has played the key role in creating its sheer-sided sandstone canyons and silhouette landforms from an enormous lakebed that covered the Talampaya basin during Permian and Triassic times.
One of ex-President Carlos Menem’s least controversial decisions was to grant this deserving area, which along with Ischigualasto  is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its national park status in 1997 (it was previously a provincial park). Besides its natural appeal, it boasts archaeological and rock-art sites (both figurative and abstract) that date from around A.D. 100–1200.
From a junction 15 kilometers south of Chilecito , westbound RN 40 becomes a gravel road as it climbs the hairpin turns of the scenic Río Miranda gorge to the 2,020-meter Cuesta de Miranda, before descending to Villa La Unión or alternatively, via RP 18, to the village of Pagancillo. From Pagancillo, RN 76 leads south to Talampaya for a total distance of about 140 kilometers.
Sprawling over 215,000 hectares of desert, the park is 217 kilometers from La Rioja  on a roundabout route via southbound RN 38, westbound RN 150, and northbound RN 76. Midway between Villa La Unión and Los Baldecitos, a paved turnoff leads a few hundred meters east to the park entrance.
Talampaya’s sparse vegetation consists largely of shrubs, including the nearly leafless retamo and the resinous jarilla, as well as cacti that include the cardón. In some areas, subterranean water supports larger trees like the algarrobo and pepper (Schinus molle).
The most conspicuous mammal is the common gray fox, but the chinchillón (vizcacha) and the armadillo are also present. Birds include scavengers like the Andean condor and turkey vulture, and raptors including the peregrine falcon.
Talampaya’s most dramatic fauna, such as the dinosaur-like Lagosuchus talampayensis and the turtle Palaeocheris talampayensis, have been extinct since the early Triassic, 250 million years ago.
Visitors may no longer use their own vehicles, but must hire guided tours through park concessionaires. Winter hours are 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily; summer hours are 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, but the relatively cool mornings are better than the hot afternoons.
The main concessionaire, for the traditional excursions starting at the canyon’s Puerta de Talampaya (Gate of Talampaya) entrance, is Córdoba’s Rolling Travel (tel. 03825/47-0397, tel. 0351/570-9909 in Córdoba, www.talampaya.com ). Based at the Parador Turístico near the highway, it does its main 2.5-hour excursion (US$17 pp) on demand with a maximum 45-minute wait, even for a single client; it has added a new roofless vehicle for better sightseeing.
That excursion does a short but informative hike to the Petroglifos rock-art and mortar site (explanatory panels include a competent English translation); another short hike through the so-called Jardín Botánico, which arrives at the Chimenea del Eco, a natural echo chamber; stops at the sheer-sided sandstone cliffs of La Catedral; and finishes at El Monje, a freestanding landform that resembles a Spanish friar. A 4.5-hour excursion that takes in the canyon of Las Cajones costs US$25 pp.
At a roadside office a few kilometers south of the Parador Turístico, a local cooperative named Turismo Talampaya (tel. 03825/15-51-2367, www.turismoentalampaya.com.ar ) does the five-hour excursion to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City, so named because its landforms resemble ruined buildings). Including a 2.5-hour hike, this costs US$32 for one or two persons; each additional person costs an extra US$13.
Visitors can crash at the Parador Turístico’s new campground (US$2 pp), which has some shaded picnic tables, and shower at its Resto Bar Naturaleza Mística’s
new bathrooms. Otherwise, the nearest accommodations are at Pagancillo, 27 kilometers north. Despite its pretentious name, the restaurant serves basic short orders and sandwiches, and cold drinks at reasonable prices.At the RN 76 junction for Puerta de Talampaya, a toll booth collects park-entrance fees (US$7 pp for foreigners, US$2 pp for Argentine residents).
Most visitors without their own vehicles now contract tours at San Agustín del Valle Fértil , but it’s possible to arrange a tour, or hire a remise, from either La Rioja  or Chilecito , or a remise from the town of Villa Unión.
From La Rioja, El Zonda (Dorrego 79, El Zonda, tel. 03822/42-1930) goes to Villa Unión for connections to the park. From Chilecito, Facundo (tel. 03825/42-9171) minibuses leave for Villa Unión (2 hours, US$6.50) at 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which means they arrive too late for same-day tours.