I looked at the grey stony structure. Almost the same size as my entire body, this was just a single vertebra of an entire spine – just one piece of the enormous puzzle that makes up one of the largest creatures that ever walked the earth – the 90 million year old fossil of an Argentinosaurus. Imagining it makes you think so hard that the back of your skull itches.
If you do have the itch for dinosaurs, Neuquén really is the place to go. An unassuming city, most people pass through it. It is a transport hub and is called the ‘gateway to Patagonia’ because it basically connects the deep south to everywhere else – Buenos Aires, Mendoza or nearby ski and mountain resort town Bariloche. Few tourists venture beyond the bus station doors or airport runway. That is a real shame. Because Neuquén has some of the richest paleontology sites in the world and some pretty interesting wine to keep you company in the evening too. With the massive investment pouring in from oil refineries, the city is becoming more and more affluent and is one to watch.
After a dozen double-spreads by National Geographic and the same line gracing every single guidebook on the region, the word is out ‘Neuquén has South America’s only dinosaur excavation site open to the public’ and a big future in dinotourism. However don’t worry that the area will become Argentina´s version of ‘Jurassic Park’ anytime soon. Neuquén is in every sense of the word ‘off the beaten track’.
If you can stretch your mind back to a hundred million years ago, Neuquén would be almost the polar opposite of what it is today. The barren, desert landscapes it is now was once a humid, tropical climate with lots of forests and lakes. It was the land of giants, and dinosaurs ruled the roost for millions of years. It is here that they have found some of the most complete, well preserved dinosaur fossils in the world, alongside fossils of fish, crocodiles, turtles and plant life – quite a rare discovery for one individual site. The other exciting breakthrough is that they have found the same species that match those found in Africa, more proof that the continents were once joined.
The biggest attraction for dinosaur hunters in Neuquén is the sheer size of the prehistoric beasts that are being unearthed – not only the world’s largest carnivore to date, but also the planet’s largest herbivore. This modest province is home to two of the largest dinosaur fossils ever discovered. But unless you do your research, you really wouldn’t know it on arrival. There is little to no marketing on its dinosaur wealth and there are few tours offered. Your best bet is to hire a car and get out and do it yourself.
First on my list to visit was the Proyecto Dino, a much ignored attraction in the vast lands of Patagonia. Located 90km outside the city on the banks of Lago Barreales, you drive past lots of red land, hydroelectric plants, oil refineries and bright blue lakes. Not that romantic, but it certainly gives you an appreciation of the remoteness of where you are. Pulling up at the dinosaur project (which is marked from the main dirt road by a very small and easily missed sign), a huge, sky-filled lake emerges and you are greeted by shabby wooden gates, steel bunkers, portable loos and a model of a wooden dinosaur.
A resident paleontologists answers the bell (located inside a plastic dinosaur skull, of course). These are the real dinosaur lovers who dedicate their lives to dusting off bones and the amount of devotion must be overwhelming considering the solitary existence living here. The project has minimal funding – shockingly the government donates zero funds to excavation.
When I visit there are only three people onsite (living in a bunker with flickering electricity) and they rotate with another 3 people, each doing 15 days on and then 15 days off. One of the paleontologists tells me it is like living in a prehistoric graveyard, with little more than bones as company. They get rather blasé about discovering new fossils, and it is only when they get the occasional visit and see a tourist’s eyes light up and jaw drop at the prospect of touching something millions of years old that they remember exactly what they are dealing with.
The paleontologist walks us around the excavation site explaining the process of finding and extracting fossils and showing us some of the projects in process. As we tour around the site, she points out where some of the big finds were, what sedimentary rock is, how a fossil is made and I ask all my stupid dinosaur questions from misinformed blockbuster movies.
As we move inside one of the bunkers there is a little museum with lots of fossils on display (some in cabinets and others just laid on earth), including one of the most complete dinosaur fossils ever discovered: the herbivore Futalognkosaurus Dukei, which proves that a vegetarian diet certainly doesn’t stunt growth as this dino would have measured 34 meters in length.
We move into the lab where another paleontologist is cleaning off a fossil and we have a cup of tea with her as she shows us how they restore, date and identify them. Walking around here is an utter privilege. The project actually invites tourists to come and live on site for a couple days to do some excavation work and really get their hands dirty in discovering fossils. There aren’t many places where you can do that.
Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales: Open daily for visits. Ruta 51 km. 65. Tel (0299) 154182295
Museo Ernesto Bachman
The authentic, rustic experience of the Proyecto Dino is quite a contrast to the dinosaur museum in El Chocon. The settlement is nestled on a huge blue lake (technically a dam) and there is a charming hotel here called Posada Dinosaurio which has cozy rooms and a nice restaurant with panoramic views over the lake and a terrace outside to soak up the sun with a cool beer.
The main attraction in El Chocon is the Museo Ernesto Bachman. Open everyday, you can get a guided tour in English or Spanish and the guide takes you around the displays of different gargantuan fossils. The most famous fossil in the museum is the appropriately named Gigantosaurus. This beast was discovered in 1993 by Ruben Carolini, a mechanic, who was out on a pleasure buggy trying to draw a map for directions to the hydroelectric plant he worked at in 1993. Bumbling along he felt something hard under his foot, scratched beneath the surface and, low and behold, he started to uncover a dinosaur fossil. This wasn’t just any fossil however. It was the vertebra of the Gigantosaurus – the largest carnivore in the world.
After years digging, 70% of the complete structure was found and paleontologists estimate the meat eater (which beats T Rex in size) would have been 13.5m long with a hip 4.6m wide, teeth up to 21cm long, a head 2m wide and weighing in at 9,500kg. Not the nicest animal to come across when it is hungry. It is in the museum alongside its favourite snack to eat, the herbivore Rebbachisaurus Tessonei. Also on display is one of the continent’s most ancient fossils, dating back a whopping 130 million years old.
Museo Ernesto Bachmann: Open daily for visits. Centro Cívico. Villa El Chocón. Tel 0299 4901230/223
Museo Municipal Carmen Funes
Further out you can also visit Plaza Huincul which has another museum ideal for fossil fans: Museo Municipal Carmen Funes. This museum houses lots of fossils as well as a life size replica of the famed herbivore, the Argentinosaurus, which is to date the biggest dinosaur in the world. A local rancher found what he thought was a tree fossil on his land in 1987; it actually turned out to be a dinosaur shinbone.
Between the three paleontology hot spots you do feel a bit overwhelmed by seeing the biggest that, the largest this, the most complete whatever. It is a lot to take in, but it is definitely worth investing a couple days in reconnecting with this land-before-time. And it makes you think twice about this Earth you are walking on.
Museo Carmen Funes: Open daily for visits. Av. Córdoba No 55. Plaza Huincul. Tel 0299 4965486
If you come all this way to see some extraordinary fossil bones, you really can’t leave without touring some of Neuquén’s wineries. Fortunately for dinosaur lovers, or parents who need something of extra interest for their kids, the winery Familia Schroeder ticks both boxes – dinosaurs and fine wine.
When digging the foundations of the winery a decade ago, the builders came across a dinosaur fossil. This was obviously a bit of an inconvenience for the winery construction, which promptly had to halt its building work and focus on excavating the fossils of the Titanosaur. A pretty cool discovery though which led to the winery being able to name the dinosaur after themselves and the oil company which helped fund the excavation: the Panamericansaurus Schroederi. In turn, the winery named one of its wine lines after the dinosaur: Saurus.
The dinosaur fossils in the wine cellar are certainly a big draw for visitors to Familia Schroeder. Now in its tenth year, the winery has become one of the most popular restaurant experiences in the area. With a large dining room overlooking the vineyards, dishes such as Patagonian trout, lamb, delicious local cherries served with chicken and sparkling wine foam are superbly prepared by their Swiss chef. A visit to the winery below reveals a modern operation with well-planned design and functionality. Designed in a gravity flow system the wine flows horizontally from the reception area, through the winery, eventually making it to the cellar to age alongside the Panamericansaurus. Schroeder specialize in Pinot Noir and sparkling wines – fizz makes up 50% of their production.
Bodega Familia Schroeder: Open for visits, tasting and lunch daily. R.P. No 7 Calle 7 Norte. San Patricio del Chañar. (0299) 4899600 int. 215
A more boutique sized operation; Bodega NQN is located in an understated, yet attractive building with gardens. The bodega houses a couple of guest rooms, a swimming pool and a restaurant. The intimate restaurant overlooks a sculpture garden and serves Argentine style dishes focusing once more on a rustic Patagonian theme – juicy lamb, trout empanadas and local apple crumble for example. The great benefit about eating here is that you can try wines from both NQN and also its sister winery Bodega del Fin del Mundo. Although now with the same owners, the style of these wines couldn’t be more different and they show a great range for Patagonian wine. Bodega NQN makes very elegant and feminine wines which have a tendency towards floral and fruity notes, whereas Fin del Mundo with its enormous portfolio tends to deliver more on power, complexity and concentration.
Bodega NQN: Open for visits, tasting and lunch daily. R.P No 7 Calle 15. San Patricio del Chañar. (0299) 4897500 4899415 (0299) 15-5810000 15-5886000
Bodega del Fin del Mundo
Although Fin del Mundo is less touristic than NQN, a visit to the winery is essential for wine lovers who want to see how the biggest winery in Patagonia functions. A large industrial winery, you can see that this is a well-oiled machine. Most of the vines are machine harvested (only handpicking for top lines) and they grow a couple of dozen varietals, including making some very interesting wines with Tannat, Cabernet Franc and Torrontes. The winery has the huge asset of having probably the most experienced winemaker in Patagonia, Marcelo Miras.
What makes Patagonia an interesting terroir for winemakers is the climate and soil. With a cool climate, dry conditions, strong winds, lots of sunshine and an impressive radiation from the 33 degree latitude, the grapes get plenty of maturation but with lots of concentration developing thicker skins. This gives Patagonian wines great colour, acidity and tannins. So it is no surprise that the Pinot Noir here, which enjoys a good reputation around the globe, is much darker than Pinots you will probably see anywhere else.
Bodega del Fin del Mundo: Open for visits and tastings daily. R.P. No 8 km. 9 San Patricio del Chañar. (0299) 4855004 /83, (0299) 155800414
Neuquén sadly isn’t going to win any beauty awards, however it is a pleasant enough place to spend a few days and the river that runs through the new and ever expanding city provides welcome greenery and nice nature walks. Within the city there are a couple art museums, a weekend artisan market and recreational activities.
In the evening there are a few gems that you ought to try out – one of them being La Toscana restaurant. Owned by three local brothers, the focus here is on high quality Italian-inspired food and you will not be disappointed. Oldest brother and chef Mauricio (of Francis Mallman training) makes some stunning dishes like slow roasted Patagonian lamb on marscapone polenta; sheep’s cheese salad with membrillo, rocket and roasted onions; and a deconstructed blini pancake with shrimps, crème freche and roasted pepper. The care is in the detail here and best of all Mauricio and his brothers actually make their own cheese and creams in their small chakra (farm) nearby.
Another place where you will find a touch of the artisan is in El Bodegon (Mariano Moreno 881). This funky restaurant serves hearty Patagonian fare but also serves a special champagne style cider made by the owner’s 90-year-old father.
La Posada Dinosaurio: 0299 490 1201 /0299 155 109620
La Toscana Restaurante: Open everyday for lunch and dinner, J JLastra 176.