21 January 2015

Fiambalá to Copiapó via Paso San Francisco: (P)una locura (Christmas in the Puna)

We arrived into Fiambalá with some pretty serious wind. Probably the worst wind we´ve ever encountered in any of our bike travels. Worried that we would encounter similar conditions up in the Puna, we waited, spoke to Jonson at the tourist information, who organises all the climbing expeditions in the area, and decided to take a couple of days off while the wind abated. The Mountain Forecast website provided some valuable information and a likely weather window that was good for both climbers and cyclists... Yet in Fiambalá, the wind was still howling every day, sometimes all day, and for a couple of times we debated whether to turn around and ride more of the Ruta 40...

But then, the 40 is also prone to winds and is incredibly hot at this time of the year. We made up our mind, bought supplies for 8 days and got our bikes ready...with perhaps way too much bread like the first picture shows. Another good reason to go back up to the Puna, apart from the lovely colors, was to spend Christmas relatively far from civilisation, surely the first of this type for us. But also, having lost all our acclimmatisation in recent weeks, we planned for a rather chilled out 4-day climb that took us from 1500 m to 4750 m, definitely the longest single climb of our lives. Una locura (or Puna locura!), like an Argentinian driver shouted at us when he saw us pushing downhill on the awful Chilean ripio on the way to the Laguna Verde...

No front panniers means all the weight goes in the back of Lucy´s bike. The panadería en Fiambalá makes some rather good bread that´s popular within the climbing groups as it doesn´t really go stale - we took advantage and bought more than 3 kg of it!
Only 200 km separate us from Chile. The road is quiet, of great quality, and (on this day, at least) there´s no wind! What´s not to like!?
We climb up, up, up through the desert landscape.
As ever in the Andes, altitude dictates what grows in the land. While we climbed away from Fiambalá, we even see some vineyards...in the desert, and at 1800 m. 

Soon we climb to 2000 m and the scenery changes completely. Check out those incredible colors!
Keeping on going, the road is still gentle, smooth, and surprisingly wind-less!
This reminds of us the North of Argentina, with no traffic
As we approached one of the narrowings of the Quebrada, where Jonson said winds picks up, we get ourselves ready...but nothing happens!
And so we make fast progress to 3000 m, and the scenery changes yet again. Welcome back to the Puna!
We reached the first of the six amazing refugios that the government maintains as shelters for climbers and other adventurers. We still have plenty of daylight left, so decide to carry on up to number 2. 

These refugios have no facilities but provide a very valuable shelter from the wind. The even claim to have wifi (which does not work in any of them)! The first four have streams nearby for water filtering purposes, although really only the Refugios 3 and 4 have it unsalty enough for drinking...
We spend the rest of the afternoon admiring the incredible Puna landscapes
The following day - Christmas eve - we continue climbing, the views improving with every turn.
Our efforts to sing Christmas carols are hampered by our lack of acclimatisation, which has us panting after every line. 
So we content ourselves with enjoying the stunning and totally unique scenery. 
Looking backwards is just as impressive.

Up we climb, past some skittish vicuña.

We reach Refugio 4 in time for a Christmas Eve treat of hot chocolate with a view. (Please note, the proudly displayed wifi sign is total BS). We unfortunately had no way to communicate with our friends and family on Christmas.. we hope they have forgiven us!)

Xmas with a view

A trip to the nearby stream for some slightly salty water, dinner and we bed down for the night

The following morning we (well, Lucy) sing some cheesy Xmas songs and eat the pannetone that we had been carrying from Fiambalá. A very special and low key Xmas, that´s for sure.

In good spirits, cause there´s just a slight headwind, we head for the next milestone of the climb: the Argentinian aduanas at Las Grutas.
It feels really special to be immersed in such a special landscape for Xmas. 

Having planned an easy day for acclimatisation purposes, we make good time. Nearing the Argentinian immigration, we get a full view of stunning Volcano Incahuasi (6612 m) with apparently has the highest Inca Ruins

We arrive to the border complex in early afternoon, enjoying great views of the Volcano San Francisco (6018 m and apparently the easiest 6000 er in the world - save that for the next visit)

We share the hospedaje at Las Grutas with friendly Argentinian mountain guides Matías (left) and Ulises (right), along with their clients, a father and his daughter (9 years old!), who is attempting to become the youngest person to climb nearby Ojos del Salado.

Climbing away from Las Grutas, we are treated to views of the nearby salty lake. 
And as we gain more altitude, we get to see more peaks on the Chilean side

Although we faced more of a headwind than previous days, we still manage to make it to the top of the pass for lunch. It´s climbing season and there´s plenty of climbers around, most of which are incredibly generous with us, handing out free drinks and food

On the way down, we are tipped off to a supply of potable water that we didn´t know existed. Guess we didn´t need to carry that 20 kilos of water to the top of the pass then! (Cyclists, see the route notes below for info).
As we go down the Chilean side, we are treated to a quick view of Ojos del Salado, the second highest peak in the Americas at 6893 m! Even then, it only gets a few hundred visitors a year, and requires no expensive permits unlike Aconcagua. 

The descent to Laguna Verde is frustratingly slow, with the horrific headwinds we had worried about finally appearing and a terrible sandy road surface to boot. But the effort is rewarded with the views from the campsite at laguna verde

The laguna really is verde, but only at certain times of day (i.e. evening when it gets really windy)

We meet Mauricio, Susana and Eugenia from La Serena and Santiago in Chile, here to climb Ojos del Salado for the second time. Funnily enough, they had also cycled toured the length of South America and so we were quick to engage in conversation. They gave us some extra water which allows us to take a much needed rest day at the laguna. And also, ignite our interest to start climbing mountains even further!

Another beautiful sunset...

Well rested, we continue our descent towards Copiapó

The Puna being all dry, sometimes surprised us with some streams, bringing some vegetation with them

Finally, two days after leaving Argentina, we reach the Chilean immigration post at the Salar de Maricunga and officially enter Chile for the third time.
After a night with the immigration officials, we just have one more small climb before it´s all downhill (nearly 4,000 m of it) to Copiapó.

On the descent, we meet Franz and Cindy, Austrian climbers who we had met a few days ago at the top of Paso San Fransisco. They were returning from a resupply trip to Copiapó and forced fresh fruits and other goodness on us. We were so grateful! Also, they happened to be from our favourite Austrian city of Salzburg (hello Martin if you read this!?)

With a stiff headwind, we can´t quite manage the full descent in one day, and find an abandoned village to camp in to shelter from the wind. Next morning we rise early to blast our way down to Copiapó before the wind pick up again. From Copiapó there´s either the dodgy route 5 (the Panamerican) South or the dessert coastal roads. Having no time to do the coast, and not wanting to risk our lives on the highway, we opt to take a bus straight to Santiago...just in time for New Years celebrations!
Route notes:

We used the Pike´s route notes for the San Francisco pass section. The only things we would add are below:

- The prevailing winds blow West to East, and start at about 10 am, so if possible, this route is best done from Chile to Argentina.

- There´s water available at Refugios 1, 2, 3, and 4 nearby, on the Argentinian side. However, we found the water from Refugio 2 to be extremely salty, almost undrinkeable, so would advise against drinking it. Maybe OK for cooking? We did not try the water at Refugio 1. We were lucky to carry enough potable water from Fiambalá until we reached the Hotel between Refugio 2 and 3, which can give you good drinking water. Water at refugio 4, and possibly 3, was good if slightly salty. There´s a stream about 5 km before Refugio 5 on the left, coming from refugio 4.

- As far as we knew there was no water from the Argentinian border at Grutas (the refugio nearby can give you drinking water) to the Chilean aduanas. However, some climbers pointed us at a stream at km 37.5 after Grutas (coming from Argentina) wich provides slightly salty but OK water. Turn left at that km onto 4x4 track to stream pictured above. Otherwise, if you are there in the climbing season, there may be climbers willing to give you some bottled water in the camp at laguna verde.

- The Chilean side has really bad ripio to laguna verde from the crossing

- The refugio at Grutas charges 70 pesos argentinos per person per night, has hot showers and a kitchen.

- In Fiambalá: the supermaket next to the gas station is much cheaper than the rest. Jonson at the tourist information can provide great advice and maybe change some USD. We stayed at the campsite just before the turnoff to the centre of town as you come from Tinogasta for 15 pesos per person per night.


  1. a belated Merry Xmas & Happy NY! Thanks for sharing your experiences, it continues to inspire :)

  2. Hi guys
    We are still reading and enjoying your updates. Guess that's the final high pass done then?
    We took on our first audax last weekend. Only 100k but nice to get on run out on the icy lanes.
    Keep on keepin on and enjoy what's to come. May the wind be in your favour!
    Joe and Lizzie x

    1. Hola chicos! Congrats on that very first audax. Now it´s time to do double that and start adding points haha. To be honest, we found some of those 100 km rides in the West to be super tough..so well done. Winter miles count double also. And indeed, last big pass done, for now... Currently in the lakes of Argentina, too many people and too much traffic, so it´s a kind of shock to our system. Luckily no longer do we drink cheap Clos, but super tasty Argentinian malbecs and Chileno carmenere for $3! Hoping to hit the very far South in April or so. Going slow as always!