La Payunia Provincial Reserve, which is also protected as a National Monument, is home to one of the highest concentrations of volcanoes in South America and the longest lava river in the world. The harsh landscape is also a habitat for pumas, armadillos, condors, guanacos, foxes, eagles, and rattlesnakes. And it can all be explored during an epic drive along a series of bumpy dirt roads near the city of Malargüe in Argentina’s Mendoza Province.
What’s so special about La Payunia Provincial Reserve?
The La Payunia area, which occupies a unique zone between the Andes and the Patagonia region, was made a Provincial Reserve in 1982. It currently includes 474,442 acres (192,000 hectares) and is home to more than 160 species of birds, including migratory birds, and flamingos year-round.
An estimated 11,000 guanacos (a wild relative of llamas which are usually hard to spot) also live in the reserve along with two species of fox, Patagonian piche (a type of armadillo), puma, and vizcacha (a rabbit-like animal).
But the thing that makes La Payunia really special is the huge number of volcanoes within the reserve’s boundaries. La Payunia has the highest density of volcanoes in South America at more than 10.6 volcanoes per 40 square miles (100 square km). That adds up to nearly 900 volcanoes in total including Payún Matrú with its 5 mile (8 km) diameter crater and semi-permanent lake.
La Payunia is also home to a 111 mile (180 km) long lava river which flowed out of the Santa Maria Volcano and ranks as the longest lava river in the world. In addition, every type of volcano known on earth is present in La Payunia. For all of those reasons, the La Payunia Provincial Reserve was submitted for UNESCO World Heritage Site consideration in 2011.
Underneath the dramatic landscape lies potassium and oil, which explains the oil wells and oil company buildings you can see on the edge of the reserve.
Exploring La Payunia Provincial Reserve
After driving out of Malargüe on a stretch of Argentina’s famous Ruta 40, we turned off the pavement and began our journey on bumpy, dusty, gravel roads toward the heart of the preserve. We passed the Malacara Volcano (more on that below) and then we passed an enormous white dish called Deep Space Antenna 3 which is monitoring the skies. We then continued navigating a series of forks and splits in the road past scrub, endemic molles trees, and through shallow river crossings toward the reserve itself.
About 400 families live within the La Payunia Reserve, mainly members of the Mapuche indigenous group. We passed a few of their small farms before being stopped in our tracks by a glimpse of an ostrich-like bird called a choique (aka Darwin’s rhea) as it sprinted through the landscape, it’s ample wings flapping and flailing behind its loping body like two giant feather dusters.
In the local Mapuche language, Payunia roughly means “copper-colored” and we saw why in the hills and mesas which came in tones of yellow, orange, and, yes, copper that reminded us of the US Southwest. Other areas looked like a monochromatic dust-colored scene but, upon closer inspection, there were bursts of color in the form of small wildflowers and tiny green leaves thanks to year-round groundwater. That water and plant life, in turn, supports the cattle, goats, and mustang-like horses (small and scruffy but tough) that the Mapuche raise here.
Get a glimpse of an area of La Payunia which is strewn with lava bombs( which are large rocks thrown out of volcanoes and shaped and deformed by the force of eruptions) in our drone video, below.
Back on the road, we passed a rocky cliff dotted with condor nests which we could clearly see from a distance thanks to white streaks of guano beneath each one. We never saw an actual condor, but we soon encountered the first of many guanacos.
The species’ success here is due, in part, to the fact that family groups of guanacos migrate through La Payunia mixing and breeding with other groups and this helps keep the gene pool diverse. Before the day was done we saw more than 100 of these usually scarce animals.
Soon we stopped again, this time to admire a juvenile Black-chested buzzard-eagle (called an Aguila mora locally). A few meters further down the road we encountered a rabbit-like vizcacha (called a chinchillón locally) that was perched on a rock as they usually are. Then a small grey fox made an appearance before darting off to safety and a nap after a long night of hunting.
A few hours after leaving Malargüe, we reached an empty ranger station and the entrance to the Pampa Negra area of La Payunia. But first, we had to drive past a string of oil wells and oil company buildings. Though the route had been primarily flat or gently rolling so far, here the road climbed up to the Pampa Negra plateau which is at around 7,000 feet (2,133 meters).
Up on the Pampa Negra, the terrain is entirely covered with black volcanic rock gravel and many of the volcanoes that surrounded us seemed close enough to touch. This area reminded us of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and, in fact, many Hawaiian words associated with volcanoes and lava are used here too.
But there is life in the Pampa Negra too, including a Patagonian piche (a type of armadillo) that darted for cover as we tip-toed through the black lava gravel to try to get a closer look. After crossing the Pampa Negra, we navigated a narrow track to cross a section of that enormous lava river to reach a spot called Molles Real where we had lunch on the picnic table under an open-sided structure which helped block the sun but did little to block the wind.
After lunch, we backtracked a bit before taking a side road toward the Morado Volcano whose bruise-colored cone rose starkly out of the otherwise lava-black landscape.
We stretched our legs on a very short trail that skirts around the flank of the volcano to reach a dramatic and windy viewpoint before continuing to backtrack back out to Malargüe along the same route we used on the way in.
See our full La Payunia Volcano Adventure in our video, below.
La Payunia from a different angle
A week or so after our day trip through La Payunia we got the chance to see things from another perspective as we drove south on Ruta 40.
Traveling between Malargüe and the town of Chos Malal, Ruta 40 skirts the western edge of the La Payunia area. This gives passersby a chance to see some of the volcanic peaks and other volcanic features of the area without doing the full drive through the reserve.
From this side, we were also able to see the Pasarela where the flow of the Rio Grande has cut a narrow, deep, and sinewy canyon through a section of lava. As the river continues to flow, the cut continues to get deeper.
There was little to no snow on any of the volcanic peaks when we spent the day in La Payunia. However, when we passed the volcanoes on Ruta 40, just nine days later, the peaks were heavily covered in snow thanks to a spring storm.
Choosing a tour company
With proper route research (we never found any detailed map of the La Payunia area and there are many forks in the road and very few signs) and a vehicle that you don’t mind beating up a bit, you can do this drive yourself with a guide in tow (local law requires that all visitors to La Payunia go with a guide). We chose to go with Choique Turismo Alternativo to benefit from owner and guide Professor Johnny Albino’s know-how (and to avoid wear and tear on our truck).
Professor Albino has been leading tours around Malargüe since 2002 and he’s been exploring the La Payunia area since 1995. He’s a trained guide and mountaineer (he helped guide climber Reinhold Messner to Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Southern hemisphere), and he trains park rangers as well.
Also, Johnny’s bright red 1997 Land Cruiser Defender is pretty cool and he named his tour company after that goofy but cool ostrich-like choique bird. Allow 11-12 hours for this full-day trip which includes a stop for breakfast and lunch. There are no restaurants, shops, gas stations, or bathrooms along this route.
Malargüe travel guide
The third-largest “city” in Mendoza Province will be your base before and after your La Payunia adventure. Here’s what you need to know about sleeping, eating, and drinking in Malargüe plus a shortlist of other things to do and see while you’re there.
We stayed at Hotel Bambi (yep, that Bambi) where 1,800 ARS (about US$30) got us an aging but super clean private room with a decent bed and a decent bathroom plus a Smart TV with Netflix, Wi-Fi, continental breakfast, and parking. The only bummer here is that they don’t accept credit cards. If you don’t want or need to stay right in town, there are a lot of cabin-style accommodations around Malargüe. Eco Hostel Malargüe, owned by Professor Albino, offers dorm rooms and private rooms on a large piece of farmland south of town. The hostel was built using recycled materials (auto windshields form many of the windows) and they uses solar power to heat water, use a biodigester to handle black water, separate trash, recycle, and compost. Plus there’s Wi-Fi and a good kitchen for guest use in a very tranquil environment.
Some guidebooks recommend a restaurant called La Valtellina. Skip it. Instead, head to La Cima, just out of town, where 340 ARS (about US$6) got us a huge piece of tender beef grilled to order with French fries and two fried eggs. The restaurant’s wine list offers a tight selection of mostly Uco Valley wines in a range of price points. In downtown Malargüe, La Posta is a solid (if not spectacular) option for Argentinean classics at good prices. We enjoyed basic but delicious empanadas and a great tortilla Espanola with potatoes.
We saw at least three places offering craft beer in Malargüe. We sampled some at Cerveza Artesanal Puliwen which has indoor seating and outdoor seating and half a dozen craft beers on tap including IPA, Stout, Session IPA, and more. A small menu, free popcorn with your brew, and a good soundtrack of US and Latin favorites round out the experience. For wine and beer, head to the 5th Avenue Wine shop which sells a nice selection of Argentinean wines by the bottle as well as cold beer and you can drink your selection in wine-barrels seats on the sidewalk in front of the shop. The gregarious owner will probably even bring you some snacks.
There are a number of other things to do around Malargüe besides La Payunia. The area’s most famous attraction is the Las Leñas ski area which is a little over an hour from town (this explains the proliferation of ski and snowboard rental places in Malargüe and the large number of outdoor gear stores).
Even if you’re not going skiing, the drive up to Las Leñas is a gorgeous (paved) meander through the Los Molles Valley with a lovely river, mineral-tinted rocks, and scrub-covered slopes dotted with free-range horses, cows, goats, and burros. Pause at the Pozo de las Animas along the way to see a sinkhole with very green water in the bottom.
Other attractions in the area include hiking into Witches’ Cave, visiting waterfalls, horseback riding, a hedge maze labyrinth called Carmona, and the Pierre Auger Observatory. We wanted to do the short guided hike into the extinct Volcan Malacara, one of the very few volcanoes in the world that can be hiked into through natural fisures in it which have created a space that’s been compared to Antelope Canyon in Arizona. However, Malacara is on private land and serviced by just one tour company which runs trips at 11 am (and sometimes again at 3 pm depending on demand) except on Tuesdays and Thursday (490 ARS or about US$8, check-in for a tour at the large and organized tourism office on the road into Malargüe). Of course, we were only free on a Tuesday or Thursday so we’ll have to do the Malacara hike next time.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina