A heavily painted section of Cueva de Las Manos, with 10,000 year old cave art (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Arriving in the sleepy town of Perito Moreno, in the Santa Cruz region of Argentina early in the morning after a long overnight bus trip, we wondered if we had made a mistake. The town has very few attractions (not to be confused with the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park near El Calafate) and not much selection in the way of lodging, the cheapest costing US$60 a night and having very little to recommend it other than a roof and walls. When we stopped by the hotel to ask about availability, the owner was luckily absent and the guests told us in no uncertain terms to run for the hills. We finally found a semi-reasonable place down the street, settled in and went off in search of transportation to our real destination, the famed Cueva de Las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Río Pinturas. The caves, which are actually easily-viewed recesses in a small canyon, were inscribed in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the "exceptional assemblage of cave art, executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago".
A section of the caves showing birds and animals as well as hands (photo by Luis Bastardo)
We booked an afternoon trip to the caves through a local travel agency (it's best to view the paintings either in the early morning or late afternoon) and set off the next day in a mini-bus for the two-hour rocky trip across unpaved roads to the entrance of the cave site. The site includes a visitor center with a small, but interesting Centro de Interpretacion (Center of Interpretation) which explains the history and the meaning of the different representations. The caves are located at the bottom of a canyon in a beautiful, well-maintained preserved area, with a river, lush stands of trees, wild herbs and flowers and naturally colored pink, red and orange rock. The majority of paintings are outlines of human hands, although there are also numerous renderings of animals such as guanacos (a cousin of the llama), birds, humanoid shapes and hunting scenes. The paintings were probably created by spraying powdered mineral tints mixed with an unknown binder directly from the mouth; iron oxides created red and purple tints, kaolin created white, natrojarosite created yellow and manganese oxide was used for black. According to the UNESCO website, "archaeological investigations have shown that the site was last inhabited around AD 700 by the possible ancestors of the first Tehuelche people of Patagonia. The Cueva is considered by the international scientific community to be one of the most important sites of the earliest hunter-gatherer groups in South America."
Along the trail of the canyon of Cueva de Las Manos (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The paintings are incredibly well-preserved and vary in age, some newer art being superimposed over older paintings, probably put there by each succeeding generation. According to UNESCO, "The favourable conditions (very low humidity, no water infiltration, stable rock strata) at the rock shelter have ensured that the state of conservation of all but the most exposed paintings is excellent." Cueva de las Manos is one of numerous important prehistoric cave-painting sites located all over the world, the most famous probably being the 17,300 year old paintings in Lascaux, France and the 30,000 year old cave art at the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India, but the Argentine site, although less ancient, is one of the best preserved and most accessible. The site must be visited with a guide (vandalism has been a problem in recent years), but it is possible to hike and explore the lovely canyon as we did, spending several hours walking, wading through the cold waters of the canyon river, climbing up the rock faces and enjoying the tranquil setting as the sun set, turning the canyon into even deeper shades of rose and amber
The canyon floor covered in sand, trees and a flowing (cold!) river (photo by Luis Bastardo)