Creative adventures in Las Grutas

History and outdoor life can be fun for young and old.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Located in the Gulf of San Matías immediately north of the Valdés Peninsula in Chubut, Las Grutas in Río Negro is a diving resort that has several things going for it. Among them are the warmest water on the Argentine coast, nice protected bathing beaches, and a creative travel company that offers a wide variety of soft adventure excursions that bring the local environment and history home to visitors in a fun way.

Between December and February, the average temperature of the water of the Gulf of San Matías is 20ºC, thanks to the Valdés Peninsula which deflects the cold southern sea current away from it, cliffs that protect fine sand bathing beaches from the wind, and a wide tidal range that leaves large expanses of sea bottom under shallow water exposed at the sun’s heat several hours a day. In addition, the town’s location in the gulf gives it 11 hours of solar exposure a day in summer.
The transparent water, which is blue in some places and turquoise in others, draws divers and snorkelers like a magnet. Tide pools in the "marine gardens" exposed by the low tide harbor fish, octopi and mollusks of the type that make the town’s restaurants attractive to seafood lovers. Near town are sea lion and Magellanic penguin rookeries.

But the desert that embraces the gulf is also interesting, with its native wildlife, fossil beds, octopus fishermen and the local legend about the fort allegedly established by the Knights Templar on a seaside mesa south of town.
So when a wildcat devaluation blew a hole in the pocketbooks of most Argentines in 2001, but made the country more attractive for tourists as well, Buenos Aires-born photo journalist Fernando Skliarevsky moved to Las Grutas and established an adventure travel agency called Desert Tracks. Drawing on the experience gained during his 20 years of globetrotting, he designed a series of excursions that enlist the town’s surroundings and history in providing both knowledge and action. In so doing, he put Las Grutas on Argentina’s tourism map.
At present, the town is Río Negro’s second most visited tourist spot, after Bariloche. During the high season months its 5,000-strong stable population swells to 200,000.

Fernando specializes in overlanding excursions. He takes tourists to see and touch the best the sea and land can offer in US army surplus jeeps and troop carriers with trailers for the water tank and kitchen that allow him to serve meals in the wild. These vehicles are used for his popular full-day Fuerte Argentino excursion and the four-day multi-adventure overland expeditions that involve sleeping in tents and diving.

The Fuerte Argentino excursion – Fernando calls it an expedition – includes sandboarding on the dunes; a stop at the octopus fishermen’s village; an explanation of how and why tides are produced, in the place with the country’s greatest tidal range; a canyon where thousands of oysters became fossils 13 million years ago; the marine gardens (if the tide is out), and snorkeling in a lagoon within view of the Fuerte Argentino mesa while the chef prepares the barbecue lunch. After dessert comes the guide´s talk about the Knights Templar, and a crossbow contest to get into the feel of things medieval.

The excursion to the Gualicho salt flats, located in a big depression 72 meters below sea level 60 km west of Las Grutas, combines instruction on salt mining with stargazing. It is done in a new air-conditioned bus. Gualicho is the biggest salt deposit in Argentina in terms of industrial production. During the summer, tours begin in the late afternoon to avoid the daytime temperatures, which can reach 50ºC at noon. Mining activity is observed until it is time to watch a spectacular sunset, with a glass of champagne in hand. Then a long table and chairs are set out on the salt and a sumptuous dinner is served under the stars.

Later, everyone takes turns looking at the moon’s craters and diverse constellations through the telescope, and seeing for themselves how night becomes day through an infrared viewer as the guide spins spooky tales about the salt flat.
One new excursion takes tourists to photograph penguins and sea lions. Another introduces them to the "Retorno del Condor al Mar" (Return of the condor to the sea) project whereby condors hatched and reared in captivity by the Buenos Aires zoo and the Fundación Bioandina are released in Sierra Paileman to repopulate the coastal area where they had become extinct. Yet another combines a petrified forest and a private paleontological museum in Valcheta, with a trip to the Somuncurá Plateau for a look at endemic prehistoric-looking little fish in a stream in Chipauquil and lunch with the French administrators of a nearby ranch.
Desert Tracks also offers excursions to the ports of San Antonio Oeste y Este (72 km), the Valdés Peninsula (230 km), Puerto Madryn (263 km), and Viedma-Carmen de Patagones (190 km).
For further information on excursions, visit

PHOTO CREDITS: The beach in front of Las Grutas, Las Grutas Tourist Office. The underwater scene in Las Grutas, Cota Cero. Penguin watching, jeeps and troop carrier, sea lion pup, snorkeling in front of Fuerte Argentino, crossbow practice, and infra-red viewer on Gualicho salt flats, all by Desert Tracks.