Cueva de Las Manos UNESCO World Heritage Sight
The Cueva de Las Manos is an incredible collection of prehistoric rock art depicting paintings of traditional hunting scenes, hands and native animals. The hours of dusty roads on route 40 are made worth it by looming red rock formations and mineral-tinted lakes and reservoirs. Despite the heat, life flourishes and common sightings like the Patagonian ostrich or ñandú, wild llamas known as guanacos, and armored armadillos can be found close to the roads, so its important to keep a look out and drive slow. Keep an eye on the rear view mirror as well, the ostriches we “met” particularly liked racing in the dirt our truck was kicking up. Pink flamingos dot the reservoirs at certain times of the year and it’s not uncommon to see massive herds of a local estancia’s sheep during your drive (it was the only “traffic jam” we came upon). The entrance brings you into a beautiful valley carved out over thousands of years, and the small welcome center sits precariously on a rock edge so high up that condors can be seen close overhead. The sheer magnitude of the rock walls set an impressive stage for exploring the near-perfectly preserved 9,000 – 13,000 year old paintings.
Discover Patagonia’s Prehistoric Cave Art
Upon arrival you’ll be matched with a guide who will lead you down a dirt path and staircase along the canyon’s edge. Observing the Cueva de Las Manos – which is less a cave, and more a series of rock shelves – takes place behind a chain hand rail and short barred walls due to vandalization in past years, but the view is unobstructed. To your back, condors can be observed circling and an optional, but more challenging hike that gives a better look at the canyons flora and fauna is available to guests that come prepared with plenty of water, food, and sunblock.
There are five areas of observation with the earliest art being of individual hunters and their still-native prey, the guanaco. Vibrant paintings of hands cover the walls, ranging in size but consistently depicting the left hand which has led researchers to believe that the ancient hunters were not only predominantly right handed, but that they painted the murals themselves, blowing a mixture of minerals and an unknown binder through some sort of tube supported by their dominant hand. It’s believed that the caves marked a sort of gathering among long distance travelers, each leaving their mark before passing through. The most recent of the paintings and most intricate give insight into hunting techniques with detailed hunt scenes being painted across the cave walls and ceilings with herds of guanacos, pumas, and ñandú being stalked by a single hunter being ambushed by groups.
Decoding the Colors of the Cuevas Del Mano
Part of the reason the paintings have been preserved for so long is the concentration of natural mineral pigments that were blown from a tube, leaving outlines of the hunters hand, or painted on to depict hunting scenes and native wildlife. Scientists have been able to discern which colors were produced by each mineral, but the binder or “glue” that made the paints is still unknown.
Red and purple iron oxides | White kaolin | Yellow natrojarosite | Black manganese oxide
Santa Cruz | Argentina
Getting to Cuevas Del Mano is Located on Route 40, south of Perrito Moreno where guided tours can be arranged. If driving, for a detailed guide on accomodations,and how to how to get to one of the ¨finest detours¨ on Route 40, click here.
$4 park entrance, plus gas (includes a guide). Private tours include round trip transportation and run from $40USD out of both Puerto Montt and Chile Chico.
What to bring
Argentinean pesos, a good hat, sun block, water, walking shoes and a camera. Bird lovers will benefit from binoculars to see the condors and native species. There aren’t any banks close by and they only accept Argentinian pesos. It costs the equivalent of 4 USD to take an hour-long guided tour of the The walk is not paved, but is low-intensity and fairly short. Options exist to do more strenuous hikes through the valley.
Summer is tourist season so there maybe lines, but organized tours will be easier to find. September – November are slightly chilly (a welcome change in such an arid, high-sun area) and crowds are minimal meaning privately guided tours, and the opportunity to spend more time observing the cave art. However, hotels and campgrounds might be harder to find due to seasonal operation.