The driver fiddled with the radio dial in the early morning drive before finally settling on silence. This was the best choice for traveling through the dreamy, pre-dawn Patagonian steppe. I felt unexpectedly anxious as we got closer and closer to Cueva de las Manos, an outcrop of painted rock art going back some 13,000 years. I had only been introduced to its existence a few days earlier by a postcard in a kiosk in Bariloche, and was struck by the outlines of hands, boldly proclaiming “WE WERE HERE.” Though the original inhabitants of the site were long dead, and I don’t believe in ghosts, I felt as if I were about to invade someone’s home.
The hand stencils were created by blowing paint (pulverized minerals) through bone onto the hands. Nearly all of the 800 or so handprints are of the left hand, which suggests the people who created them were right-handed as they would have used their right hand to hold the bone. There is one six-fingered hand, a result of low genetic diversity. There are even “false hands” created by pranksters much more recently, the reason for the current fence in front of the rock face.
Other than the hands, the most frequent image is that of the guanaco, a crucial part of these nomadic people’s diet. The cueva is really more like a cliff with small recesses overlooking a large valley and faraway mountains, from which these hunter-gatherers could spot the migrations of their favorite prey. Due to their tremendous importance, the guanacos are larger and more elegantly realized than the cruder images of people, amardillos, pumas and mythical demon-like creatures.
After climbing down the cliff, we strolled through the bucolic valley, a ranch of some 600 cows. Rosie turned to me and said, “This is the best thing on the trip so far, even better than Iguazu!” Though she had studied archaeology, I was still surprised that she would put this ahead of mighty Iguazu. But I was more surprised that I agreed with her.
Hotel Belgrano offers tours from Perito Moreno. Tours can also be organized through Chaltén Travel.
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