The province of Mendoza is rapidly becoming one of the hottest travel spots in Argentina. And with good reason: It produces 70 percent of the country’s wine and boasts labels rated among the best in the world. It is also home to the acclaimed dry powders of Las Leñas ski resort, the white waters of the Mendoza River, and the volcanic summit of Aconcagua: a climber’s dream with numerous glaciers and the highest peak outside of Asia.
While bodegas, rivers and mountains may be Mendoza’s most popular destinations, they are not its most unique. The most stunning scenery in Mendoza (and perhaps in the country, alongside Iguazu Falls and Perito Moreno Glacier) is in Payunia, at the southern tip of the province.
Payunia is a 450-000 hectare nature reserve with lava fields stretching out to the horizon. La Pasarela delimits the park, where the emerald green Rio Grande has forced its way through solid volcanic rock. Beyond the river is a striking black landscape of volcanic gravel cut by brush strokes of red minerals, swaths of sprouting yellow grass, yardang erosion rock features and, of course, volcanoes.
In fact, Payunia has the highest concentration of volcanic cones in the world. A recent survey by Corina Risso of the University of Buenos Aires puts the total around 800, although there are likely more. It was the turbulent nature of these volcanoes that created Payunia’s astounding scenery – at times resembling some far-distant planet, at others offering a glimpse of what our own planet may have looked like in its beginnings.
While tourists may just be getting to know the area, it has been a favorite of oil companies for decades. Above wine and tourism, oil is the most important source of income for Mendoza, and the Payunia area holds some of the largest reserves. The oil industry’s exploits are immediately noticeable in the bobbing oil pumps scattered throughout the region. But these pumps slowly disappear along the outskirts of the reserve and are not present at all once inside.
Thankfully, the area has also received attention from conservationist groups, scientists and government. In 1982, a young agronomist named Ramón Martínez joined forces with the “Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina” (Argentina Wildlife Foundation) to take the first steps toward preserving the region and, in 1988, Payunia was declared a protected reserve.
Since then, a collaborative of the municipal and provincial governments, non-profits and private businesses have undertaken a series of major studies to help revert the oil industry’s past impact, and prevent future damage. As Santiago, owner and guide of Karen Travel remarks, “Today, there is excellent communication between the park rangers, oil companies, businesses and travel agencies, and the conservation effort is quite effective. Of course, due to the reserve’s great size, the park rangers are sometimes stretched a little thin. But all of us – me as a guide for instance – also have to do our part in watching over the area.”
This collaboration has led to projects dividing the reserve into zones according to use, designating expert ecologists and park ranger staff, promoting local culture and protecting wildlife habitats. Today, the park is an official reserve to the guanaco (a relative of the Llama), and is also home to choiques (an ostrich-like bird), ground hogs, Patagonian maras, vizcachas, chinchillas, tunduques, pumas, Patagonian zorrillas or chiñes, and grey foxes.