Cueva de las Manos: Intriguing Archaeology

Travelling down south, there are days spent on the road, covering hundreds, thousands of kms. We’re on Ruta 40, one of the longest and most iconic routes in Argentina that stretches 5,200 kms from its northernmost to southernmost tip.

Expanse of the Patagonian estepe. The road disappears in the distance.
‍ Patagonian estepa

Something that becomes familiar along the way is the Patagonian desert, also known as the Patagonian “estepa,” or steppe in English. In this area, the estepa doesn’t normally see temperatures higher than around 12°C, so it’s a ‘cold’ desert. The land is very dry: earth, stones, low lying shrubs and tufts of grasses for miles, sculpted by the winds.

The most common inhabitants we’ve caught sight of are guanacos (cousins of llamas) and choiques (Darwin’s rhea), but there are a wide range of other creatures, including rabbits, skunks, foxes and the infamous puma, if you are lucky.

Guanacos grazing in the estepa patagonica (Patagonian Steppe) at sunset
Guanacos in the estepa, Santa Cruz

The wind is strong most of the time (40-80kmph) and the roads are a mix of asphalt, dirt and gravel. When it gusts, all of this swirls up and flies around at force, so we have to be strategic when parking, to avoid the chance of stones hitting the windows. Sometimes, we’ve found ourselves in crosswind valleys, with both hands firmly on the steering wheel and watching the odd valiant cyclist pedalling Ruta 40, battling (probably more than us) to keep on track.

On this part of the 40, towns become more and more scarce. There is no phone signal and shortwave radio communication is the norm. We must fill our tank at every opportunity that comes, carry spare fuel and make sure we are prepared for various eventualities. 

our campervan in the estepa (steppe) at sunset with the headlights on
Ruta 40, Santa Cruz

So when there are 5 hours between two towns, we are 1.5 hours in and mid-conversation, the oil light starts flashing!? We pulled over, got out, looking both ways at the kms of the wilderness, estepa, blue sky. No vehicles, no bars of phone signal and just the faithful gusting, whistling wind. 

Googling wasn’t an option and there was no obvious way to get help. We dug out the manual, which stated ambiguously that a blinking oil light is either ‘a major fault, or an oil change’. We had no option but to use our intuition, take a risk – keep driving and head back on ourselves to get a diagnosis.

When your life is carried in your vehicle, and you are thousands of miles away from home, the prospect of a potential major fault is quite something. Those 1.5 hours back up to Esquel, with no idea if we would make it were an interesting lesson in staying optimistic! 

We found a mechanic quickly, had an oil change and full service (optimism!) and then were good to get back on the road.

Dirt tracks leads to a stunning sunset on the heights of the Argentinean Estepa (Steppe) near Cueva de Las Manos. Santa Cruz Province - Argentina
Airfield near Cueva de las Manos

We arrived at the isolated UNESCO site of Cueva de los Manos (Cave of Hands) in Santa Cruz at dusk, one evening in early February. The winds were reaching 50km p/h and the van was shaking and shuddering. We found an old airfield before the canyon and drove up there, watching everything around us glowing. For a moment, alone in the expanse of this setting, it was as if we had been transported to an alternative reality.

We visited the caves the next day. The hands were painted on the rocks around 11,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers who used natural pigments and blew them through the hollow of bones to stencil their handprints. Hunter-gatherers were prehistoric nomadic groups that established the use of fire, developed knowledge of plant life and tools for hunting and domestic uses.

In this area their destiny was intrinsically tied to the herds of Guanacos they followed. It was their main source of food and also served for all sorts of other things like skins for clothing, bones for utensils, etc. The old settlers are long gone, but the abundant herds of the creatures that sustained them are still here.

It was a really interesting visit and an opportunity to gain a historical sense of what was here long before humans were here. 

Insider’s Tips

Arriving at Cueva de las Manos at sunset provides stunning views of the surrounding area and the golden cliffs are glowing. 

There are various places to park-up and wild camp,  but we wouldn’t recommend camping with a tent due to the incredibly strong winds we experienced.

Parking by the visitor centre is only permitted in the daytime. If we knew more about the area, we would have planned to wild camp on the other side of the canyon and hiked across the valley in the morning for the tour.

The old settlers are long gone, but the abundant herds of the creatures that sustained them are still here...