"Is this a vertebra?" asked Jorge Lagos, scooping up a curiously round, oddly colored stone from the reddish earth.
"No," said Maria Magdalena Pierini, smiling as she sized up Lagos's discovery, noting how the promise of dinosaur bones can bring out the child in a 54-year-old. "Sorry," she said, motioning Lagos, his wife, daughter and two grandchildren in her direction.
Standing at the edge of a crater-size pit just a few feet away, the family stared in awe at the half-buried, calcified rib cage and shoulder blade of a 20-foot tall "futalongkasaurus," named after the excavation site -- Futalongko, which means "Big Chief" in the language of the Mapuche Indians native to this region. It died on this spot 90 million years ago, said Pierini, who is part of an eight-person crew of technicians and paleontologists working in 12-hour shifts to unearth the fossils and offering a view to anyone willing to pay the equivalent of a 65-cent admission fee.
"When we excavate, we try to identify all the [fossils] that may be in that one location so that we can bring everything out at once," Pierini said.
Lagos is thrilled. "This is really amazing isn't it? It reminds you what a privilege it is to live in a place where there is so much to discover."
This is where the wild things are, dead but not gone, in Argentina's breathlessly beautiful Patagonian desert. Patagonia is the world's most plentiful source of animal and plant fossils from the Cretaceous Period, the prehistoric time that followed the Jurassic Period.
"We like to call this Cretaceous Park," said Jorge Calvo, the project director, who is a geologist and paleontologist. "This is better than a museum; it's an excavation. The people can actually see the fossils still in the ground. We even permit them to touch the bones."
Tourists from 28 countries have visited this site since it opened in February 2001, part of a growing segment of Argentina's travel industry dubbed "dino-tourism."
Relying more on word of mouth than on advertising, the Patagonian circuit of excavation sites, museums and prehistoric parks has begun to capitalize on its buried treasures, attracting tens of thousands of domestic and foreign tourists to this remote, southernmost region with guided tours, camping trips, and even pajama parties for children.
Tourism is booming. It's been more than a decade since Argentina welcomed as many tourists as it has in the past year. More than 340,000 have traveled to this and other sites in Neuquen province in the last year, an increase of more than 76 percent from a year ago.
In the first three months of this year, the number of domestic and foreign tourists has increased another 42 percent, according to government figures.
"It's a bumper crop," said Rodolfo Genise, a travel agent in Buenos Aires. "Travel agencies and tour guides, we are all hiring more people to handle the volume."
A convergence of factors have made Argentina a magnet for foreign tourists. The devaluation of Argentina's peso in December 2001 means that tourists' dollars go a lot farther here. And like South Africa -- the fastest growing tourist destination in the world last year -- Argentina is considered relatively safe from the worries of war and the threat of terrorism.
The collapse of Argentina's currency has boosted not just international tourism but the number of domestic trips made by Argentines as well. Unable to afford vacations to the United States and Europe as many did in the 1990s, more Argentines are taking vacations close to home, helping forge a rebound in the slumping Argentine economy.
"It is helping the country a lot to move forward," Tourism Minister Daniel Scioli said in a recent interview. "We are finding in the tourist industry a solid base to recover quickly."
Here in Neuquen, where the corrugated cliffs are deep red and the water is unnaturally blue, Calvo discovered the remains of the futalongkasaurus -- a type of dinosaur not previously known to exist -- more than a year ago.
And then he and his crew were surprised that they were attracting visitors.
"Some people would just come and watch us work," he said. So the team started a Web site, www.proyectodino.com.ar, and hired Pierini to manage the tourist traffic. News of the excavation seemed to spread like wildfire.
Schoolchildren from Canada organized a camping trip to the site to have breakfast with Calvo and the technicians. Tour buses brought dozens of tourists at a time. Some people cheered when a bone was fully excavated; others cried.
"At first it was difficult to work with people watching because they would ask, 'What's this?' and 'What's that?' " Calvo said. "But then we started assigning one technician to just answer questions from the crowd. Some people want to touch. We permit them to. We kind of made this up as we went along. There is no book for it."
"There's nothing like this," said Norma Fanflite, a teacher who traveled for two hours on a Saturday morning to visit the site. "I have some kids in my class who are dinosaur freaks. They will love this. It's different than seeing it in an antiseptic museum.
"This is better than Disney World," she said.