All you need to know about Argentina’s Cueva de las Manos
The enigmatic Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Argentine Patagonia is one of the finest examples of ancient rock art on the planet. Read on to find out more...
What is it?
The Cueva de Las Manos Pintadas (Cave of the Painted Hands) is not so much a single cave as a series of rock overhangs at the base of a cliff-face in the remote and spectacular Cañón de Río Pinturas in Patagonia. The site is most famous for its breathtaking collage of more than 800 black, white, red and ochre handprints, painted over 9,000 years ago, but there are also excellent depictions of guanacos (a relative of the llama and the artists’ main source of food), rheas (a large flightless bird that still roams the Patagonian plains), puma prints and human beings. In addition to living creatures there are also representations of geometric shapes, zigzag patterns, red dots, the sun, and hunting scenes.
Of the 829 handprints most are male, one has six fingers and only 31 are of right hands. All of the prints are negatives or stencils; created by placing the hand against the rockface and blowing paint at it through a tube made of bone.
What’s the big deal?
Cueva de las Manos is one of the most important examples of rock art in South America and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It is by no means the only example of hand stencils in the world – there are much older sites in France, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia – but the main panel at Cuevas de las Manos is by far the largest and most dramatic display of handprints in the world.
What do the hands mean?
The short answer is: no one knows. One of the more plausible theories is that the hands were painted by adolescent boys as part of an initiation ceremony or rite of passage. This is backed up by the fact that many of the handprints are not large enough to have been made by fully-grown adults. Another popular theory is that the paintings were made as part of a religious ceremony that preceded a hunt.
Where is it?
The caves are located in the spectacularly rugged Cañón de Río Pinturas which is some 75 miles South of the town of Perito Moreno on the legendary Ruta 40 – Argentina’s answer to Route 66. Perito Moreno is about a five-hour drive from the nearest airport in Comodoro Rivadavia – a coastal outpost more than 1,000 miles South of Buenos Aires.
How can I see it?
It goes without saying that you’re unlikely to visit the Cuevas de Las Manos ‘by accident,’ but those who make the effort are richly rewarded. The town of Perito Moreno is relatively drab and most people choose to stay in the far more picturesque lakeside hamlet of Los Antiguos, some 30 miles to the East. Alternatively there are some basic but delightfully authentic estancias within hiking distance of the caves.
The caves can be reached by car (the last 18 miles are pretty bumpy) or you can hike or horse-back ride the last 3, 5 or even 10 miles. The Rio Pintura valley is a breathtakingly gorgeous place and we’d highly recommend making the final leg of the journey ‘under your own steam’ if at all possible. The caves are located within a national park, and the entry fee includes a free one-hour guided tour of the caves.
Tell me more...
Check out these links for more info on particular aspects of the Cueva de las Manos.
1. A description of the caves from the South American Rock Art Archive.
2. Information about the state-of-the-art museum in Perito Moreno town which will soon open its doors to the public.
3. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention’s official page on the Cueva de Las Manos.
4. An interesting summary of other examples of hand paintings all around the world.
And finally here’s an atmospheric video of a visit to the caves.
Credit to Pablo Gimenez for the title image of this blog.
Last updated: February 2021