The Patagonian Steppes is a flat, flat region of unlimited horizons a big sky country. It's a place to go to set your soul and your mind free, and has inspired scores of writers, notably Bruce Chatwin in his book In Patagonia. Both Bosques Petrificados National Monument and Cuevo de los Manos speak to dimensions of Patagonia lost to history, to geologic and cultural change. They are places of mystery, where it becomes clear that magical dimensions exist even in even the most austere of landscapes.
Bosques Petrificados means petrified forest. It is the finest example a petrified forest of the three that exist in Argentina. The monument was set aside in 1954 and includes 25,000 acres. See it on a map of Chilean & Argentinian outdoor attractions.
Cuevos de los Manos means "Cave of the Hands." It is a series of canyon caves featuring wall paintings done by the now vanished indigenous people. The caves are on private land, open by the graciousness of the owner. Visitors there have a special responsibility to respect the space, both in honor of their ancient sanctity, and to keep the caves open and preserved for others. See it on a map of Chilean & Argentinian outdoor attractions.
About 140 million years ago, the Andes were but freckles on the landscape and rain clouds traveled freely in Patagonia from coast to coast without any high mountains blocking their way. The forests were lush and overgrown. Then the volcanoes erupted, and the Andes were born, burying the forests under a wail of volcanic ash. The buried forests turned to stone, where they lay hidden for millions of years. Gradually, rain and the constant Patagonian wind finally unveiled the forests, exposing acres of stoney upright tree trunks as well as fallen branches. Petrified wood was a hit with rock collectors, and Argentina realized that they needed to do something to protect their petrified forests before they all got carted away for use as garden ornaments in England or paperweights in Rio de Janeiro.
But it's easier to keep petrified forest extant than it is to keep a culture alive. The Cuevos de los Manos were a sacred site for the Tehuelches, who lived in the area when the Europeans first came.The earmark of the caves are the multitude of hands outlined on the walls, like leaves on a many branched tree. Native animals and sacred symbols are also portrayed on the walls.
The Tehuelches are no longer here, victims of massacre, displacement, alcohol, and cultural malaise. But their spirit is here, allied with the spirits of the plain.
When to Go
By all accounts, Patagonian winters are dismal. So go during the South American spring and summer, October through April.
What to Do
Both Bosques Petrificados and Cuevos de los Manos can be experienced in a day. Think of them as short hikes with a little meditation thrown in.
Cuevos de los Manos has the added bonus of dipping pools in the stream that runs through the canyon a good thing to look forward to on a hot dusty day. Pack a bathing suit and a towel.
Sleeping & Eating
Both sites can be fully experienced in a day. To deter pilferers, the rangers at Bosques Petrificados allow camping only in the immediate vicinity of their station. You may want to arrive late, pitch your tent, and get up at the crack of dawn to experience the petrified forest at sunrise.
Cuevos de los Manos is private land, and you may not camp there all all. Your best bet is to either stay in a hotel in the town of Perito Moreno, 40 miles away, or ask at the tourist office there if there are any nearby public campgrounds.
Both sites are near-deserts, and foraging is practically non-existent. You can pack a lunch into Cuevo de los Manos, but you may not cook there.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication