On Argentina‚Äôs northern Patagonian coast is Las Grutas, a small, quiet village surrounded by immense natural beauty. Kilometers of soft-sand beaches line a calm, transparent sea of ever-changing colors. Offshore, in the Golfo San Mat√≠as, bottle-nosed dolphins and southern right whales swim past. Atop the cliffs is a boardwalk bordered by white-washed, undulating walls reminiscent of Mediterranean villages. At various times of the day, riotously squawking flocks of Burrowing Parrots swoop over the village.
A dozen bajadas, or staircases descend the cliffs down to the seaside. The town is named for the grutas, or caves between Bajada Cero and Tercera Bajada. These cliffs, which are up to eight meters (26 ft) high, are home to hundreds of those small, olive-brown parrots with a yellow and red breast. They burrow in the bluffs between Segunda and Cuarta Bajada.
In summer, this is the warmest sea on the coast, with water temperatures reaching 18-22¬ļC (64-72¬ļF). The unique geography creates this phenomenon. The coast gently slopes here, allowing the sea to retreat up to two kilometers (1.2 mi). At these times of day, restingas, or rock shelves, are exposed. In their depressions sun-warmed pools form at low tide. Sometimes the high tide laps against the bluffs. Between Segunda and Quinta Bajada the beach exists all day long.
Las Grutas is a young village. In 1939, a group of families from San Antonio Oeste got rights to build a bungalow, which for 20 years was the only building. During the 1960s, a commission was formed to develop it as a resort town. By the 1970s it already had 450 houses and an increased number of investors, especially from Bariloche, Viedma and Buenos Aires. During the 1980s, Las Grutas grew to become an √ľber-popular destination for Argentine vacationers. But up until the middle of the 21st century‚Äôs first decade, Las Grutas was only a summertime balneario. Come the end of vacations, hotels and restaurants were boarded up until the next December when the tourist hoards descended on the town in droves. Then things began to change. Now a few places choose to remain open year-round, allowing stray adventurers to peacefully enjoy this coast‚Äôs astounding beauty.
Las Grutas is within the √Ārea Natural Protegida Provincial Bah√≠a de San Antonio. Along the beach south of town are attractions that can be reached at any tide. Spend a day walking along the beach to them, observing the abundant birdlife and having a picnic. Just four kilometers (2.4 mi) away is Piedras Coloradas, mounds of red stone emerging from the pale sand. El Buque is a rock formation that at lowest tide looks like a ship (7 km / 4.3 mi south). Here there are lots of caves and lagoons filled with mussels and small Patagonian octopus. At El S√≥tano, the difference between high and low tide is seven to 13 meters (23-43 ft), the greatest in all of Argentina (12 km / 7.2 mi from Las Grutas). Two kilometers (1.2 mi) from El S√≥tano is Ca√Īad√≥n de las Ostras, where the rocks are full of fossilized oysters from the Upper Tertiary Period (15 million years ago).
Near Las Grutas are other incredible sights to explore. Sixty kilometers (36 miles) to the west are Salinas de Gualicho. Covering 430 square kilometers (160 mi2) of the Patagonian steppe, this 72-meter- (236 ft) below-sea-level depression is Argentina‚Äôs largest salt works and the third-largest in South America. Sodium bicarbonate and caustic soda are mined. In winter, the area is a large lagoon. In October, it begins to dry, and the harvest begins in December. Nighttime tours come for stargazing.
On a meseta about 48 kilometers (30 mi) south of Las Grutas is Fuerte Argentino. Some say this is the Lost City of the Caesars, others that it was a Spanish fortress. Fundaci√≥n Delphos says it was where the Knights Templars escaped to after being disbanded by the Papacy. This organization has done excavations and says it discovered evidence to support this theory (www.delphos.com.ar). At low tide, a lagoon good for snorkeling forms 800 meters (0.5 mi) away from the fortress. The meseta is accessable only with a 4x4 vehicle. Las Grutas is also a good base for visiting San Antonio Oeste and San Antonio Este.
The region‚Äôs ancient inhabitants told of a cacique‚Äôs daughter who had fallen in love with a Spanish soldier. So he would never leave, she bewitched the waters of this gulf. The legend says that anyone who bathes here shall feel the need to return. Those few who have come to know Las Grutas‚Äô allure know it is true.
(Altitude: 1 m / 3.28 ft, Population: 2,741, Phone Code: 02934)
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