San Antonio de los Cobres to San Pedro de Atacama via Paso Sico

San Antonio de los Cobres – Olacapato – Catua – Paso Sico – San Pedro de Atacama


This fantastic route through the Puna de Atacama in northern Argentina and Chile is a great way to cross the Andes. The scenery is outstanding throughout as the road passes through wild landscapes of volcanoes, salares and lakes. This is a remote part of the Andes with few settlements so it’s best to take about a week’s supply of food from San Antonio (or San Pedro/Socaire if cycling in the opposite direction). Water can only be found at intervals along the road, so in places a day or two of water needs to be carried – we’ve noted in the description where it can usually be found.

There are a couple of options to choose from on this route. From Olacapato to Argentine aduanas (customs and immigration) we chose to go via Catua as we had heard from other cyclists that the route via Salar del Rincon is very sandy. Though the surface near Catua wasn’t great it was always rideable. On the Chilean side we planned on detouring from the main road to go to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques, however the turn off when coming from the east is small and not sign posted, so we missed it. Thus the route described here doesn’t go to these beautiful lakes, and we don’t know the condition of the track to them, however we have since found (and included in the route description) GPS coordinates for the turn-offs.

We thought the isolation and other-wordly landscapes on this route made it a more interesting way to cross from Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama than the Paso Jama to the north, but as the road is unpaved and there are few people around (and little traffic on the middle section of the route) it is a lot more challenging. At all times of year be prepared for strong winds and low nighttime temperatures.

Our camera was broken for the duration of this route, so we don’t have any of our own photos of the wonderful landscapes, so thanks to Steve Fabes for allowing us to use some of his shots.

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San Antonio to San Pedro - Steve Fabes 1
San Antonio to San Pedro - Steve Fabes 2
San Antonio to San Pedro - Steve Fabes 3

Total dist. Stage dist. Description
0km San Antonio de los Cobres (3,770m – GPS01). Town with accommodation options, shops, restaurants, ATM.
28km Climb to Alto Chorrillos, initially following a stream.
28km Alto Chorrillos (4,555m – GPS02).
34km Descend, then flat to Olacapato.
62km Olacapato (4,010m). Small railway village just off the main road. Very basic supplies and water available.
10km Continue through Olacapato on a flat road.
72km Cauchari (3,940m) – a few abandoned buildings and a double junction (signposted). No water. Initially – straight/L to Salar del Hombre Muerto, R to Salar del Rincon and Catua (we went R). Then at next junction – L to Salar del Rincon, R/straight to Catua. We took the Catua road.
12km On Salar de Cauchari (3,940m). Flat.
84km Start of climb.
11km Climb up a valley to the pass.
95km Abra de Arizaro (4,330m – GPS03).
14km Descend towards Catua.
109km Junction – R to Catua, 1 km away (3,980m – GPS04, basic accommodation, basic supplies and water), straight to Aduanas Argentinas.
17km (Going straight.) Short climb for 1km then descent to Aduanas Argentinas.
126km Aduanas Argentinas (3,830m – GPS05). Water.
12km Gentle climb.
138km Paso Sico – the Argentina/Chile border. Some big road signs but nothing else here.
11km Mostly gentle climb though it gets steep towards the end. Great scenery.
149km Abra Sico (4,458m – GPS06).
6km Descend.
155km Low point (4,250m) between Abra Sico and Abra El Laco.
4km Climb.
159km SAG post. (4,340m – GPS07). Water. Pity the guys at this hardship posting (though not if they confiscate your fruit/meat or other banned food imports). Great views though.
4km Steep climb.
163km Abra El Laco (4,578m – GPS08). The highest point on this route.
3km Descend.
166km Mina El Laco (GPS09). Staffed year round by a couple of (bored in off-season) guys. Stock up on water, and they also have internet if you need to make emergency contact with the outside world.
34km Descend to Lago Tuyaito (4,050m) then continue to Salar de Aguas Calientes.
200km Leave Salar de Aguas Calientes from its north-west shore. Beautiful scenery.
17km Climb 200m in 5km, then ups and downs until high point at just over 4,100m. Surface fine. About 14kms after leaving the shores of the Salar de Aguas Calientes is the turn off (GPS10) to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques.
217km High point at just over 4,100m.
43km More up and down before a 600m descent to Socaire.The second turn off to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques (GPS11 - which is well signposted and is where you’d rejoin the main road if you’d turned off at the first turn off at GPS10) is about 26kms from the first turn off (GPS10), and about 20kms before Socaire.
260km Socaire (3,270m). Civilization at last! Village with shops. Paving begins.
50km Rapid descent to about 2,600m, then quite flat to Toconao.
310km Toconao (2,500m). Town with tourist facilities.
38km Flat to San Pedro. After 22kms is the turn-off to the new observatory. We asked if we could cycle up it we were told it wasn’t opening to the public until 2012. There’s a barrier across the road so it’s not possible to get past, and I doubt they’ll let you cycle even in 2012 – but if anyone succeeds please let us know. (The 43km on our map is wrong – it’s 38km to immigration.)
348km San Pedro de Atacama immigration (2,440m). Welcome to gringo central, which is 1km or so further on.
Details
Time taken – 6 days and amount climbed 3,340m 6 hours: SAdlC – Olacapato (headwind, 850m climb).
5 hours: Olacapato to Catua (450m climb).
7 hours: Catua to SAG (headwind, 790m climb).
1 hour: SAG to El Laco Mine (260m climb).
13 hours: El Laco Mine to San Pedro (headwind, 990m climb).
Traffic Plenty of trucks from SAdlC to Cauchari, but they all turn off to Salar del Hombre Muerto. A few vehicles from Cauchari to Catua. Two vehicles in three days from Catua to Socaire. Plenty from Socaire to San Pedro.
When we cycled Mid June 2010.
Difficulty 4
How much we had to push on this route Only when there were storm force headwinds.

GPS Point Description Lat/Long/Altitude
GPS01 San Antonio de los Cobres 24.2233 S, 66.3194 W, 3,770m.
GPS02 Alto Chorrillos 24.2093 S, 66.4758 W, 4,555m.
GPS03 Abra de Arizaro 23.9820 S, 66.9431 W, 4,330m.
GPS04 Catua 23.8707 S, 67.0054 W, 3,980m.
GPS05 Aduanas Argentinas 23.8740 S, 67.1570 W, 3,830m.
GPS06 Abra Sico 23.8090 S, 67.3549 W, 4,458m.
GPS07 SAG post 23.8254 S, 67.4419 W, 4,340m.
GPS08 Abra El Laco 23.8414 S, 67.4674 W, 4,578m.
GPS09 Mina El Laco 23.8614 S, 67.4914 W, 4,430m.
GPS10 1st Turn-off to Lagunas 23.8951 S, 67.8129 W, 4,040m.
GPS11 Lagunas road rejoins 23.7033 S, 67.8282 W, 3,880m.



Nearby routes:      Cafayate to San Antonio             Susques to Salar de Pocitos             Paso Jama              Sur Lipez Lagunas

3 Responses to “San Antonio de los Cobres to San Pedro de Atacama via Paso Sico”

  1. Elmar & Ellen van Drunen 25/05/2014 at 21:00 # Reply

    Hi,
    We just cycled this route from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta (May 2014) and have some updates:

    1. pavement after Socaire is extended for about 30 kilometers.
    2. you are not allowed to camp with the park of Laguna Miscanti and Miniques (we got kicked out) and they don’t want you to continue cycling through the park after Laguna Miniques. Coming from the direction of Socaire they will see you, I guess if you come from the other direction nobody will know you are there. In that case there is a great campspot near Laguna Miniques within some wind breaking walls.
    3. at the north-east shore of Salinas de Aguas Calientes a small dirt track leads down to the Salinas. Here you will find a sheltered place to pitch your tent out of the wind.
    4. the road surface along Lago Tuyaito has deteriorated. Very sandy. We didn’t have to push, but it slowed us down a lot.
    5. After passing the SAG post/police post (you MUST have an exit stamp, obtained in San Pedro de Atacama, otherwise you can go back the way you came.. they won’t let you through) and before the next pass (Abra Sico) there is a great spot to camp next to some rocks and walls to keep you out of the wind.
    6. the road surface between Catua and Abra de Arizaro is very bad now, especially the first ten kilometers. Very sandy and a lot of mud. We had to push our bikes many times.

    Hope this will help!
    Regards,
    Elmar & Ellen van Drunen

  2. Cass 11/07/2014 at 12:02 # Reply

    Mid July 2014.

    Heading in the direction of San Pedro definitely adds to the challenge of this beautiful ride. Expect strong headwinds on the climbs, and on the descents! They seem to build from around midday onwards.

    Some bad corrugation on the descent from Alto Chorrillos. This, with the wind, and a low pass en route, makes progress slow going.

    A little soft under tyre on the climb to Abra Arizaro.

    The descent to Catua felt fine to me. Road becomes a river in places, but there are drier (though sandier) parallel tracks. The road is now good between Catua and the Argentinian border post.

    Argentinian border has open access wifi. The pass was officially closed from the Chilean side, but not the Argentinian side. We were able to sweet talk our way past the Argentinian border, by saying we’d return if the Chileans decided not to let us through. We had to sign a waiver ‘in case anything happened’ in between. Took an hour of discussion and some paperwork. Coffee was provided while we waited (-:

    The climb up to the SAG and Abra el Laco felt tough! Much wind.

    Since Elmar and Ellen’s updates, the Lago Tuyaito section has been improved. Work is ongoing, still many trucks. Good surface at the moment.

    Forgot to write down the GPS co-ordinate of the Lagunas turnoff (and didn’t have a cycle computer) so missed the track, even though I was looking out for it. Real shame, as the road is now paved a little beyond the 217km (4100m) high point – this detour would thus avoid needless blacktop (-; It looked like a great trail – you can see it when you look back on the climb to the high point, cutting straight across the valley floor. If I’d known how soon the pavement started, I’d have gone back for it.

    Temps are extremely cold at this time of year. The folk at El Laco mine claimed -32c! We found abandoned buildings to sleep in each night, and a walled enclosure to camp in at the bottom of Socaire (though it was much warmer and less windy by then).

    Cass

  3. Lee Vilinsky 08/12/2014 at 21:10 # Reply

    I cycled this route from San Pedro (Chile) to San Antonio (Argentina) with Alberto and Lucy of machacasonwheels.blogspot.com in late November 2014.

    For pictures and other impressions, here is my take on the route: https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=Sh&page_id=399508&v=c

    This was a very scenic ride that, in comparison to other routes on this website, was relatively easy. This was due to a few things in general:

    1. Wind. Every day saw a very strong tailwind, pushing us forcefully in the direction we were headed. This was usually in the afternoon, though some mornings had this wind as well. In fact, I was pushed up to Abra Sico, climbing the 5% grade at 20 kph! It sounds pleasant on paper, but the wind was so strong that it was blowing sand up the back of my shirt. Looking at the comments above, it seems there is a Westerly wind at all times of the year.

    2. Shelter. It’s theoretically possible to stay in or around some kind of manned shelter every night of this journey.

    3. Food & Water. I never carried more than four liters at a time. I chose to stock up on food in Socaire rather than San Pedro. Some food can be bought in Olacopata, essentially a day’s ride before San Antonio.

    4. Road Condition. The Chilean side was mostly fantastic. The pavement is now extended until 2km just before the first high point. There are many sections after that that have been recently regraded and were practically like riding on pavement. There was construction crew from the Chilean SAG post up to the border currently regrading that section. Argentina’s side is more of a hodgepodge, but no section was ever overly sandy or corrugated. Some parts on the Argentinian side seem to have been regraded as well.

    5. Climate. At this time of year, the temperature during the day ranged from comfortable to moderately hot. Every day was bright and sunny and the sun was its strongest around 3pm. The evenings were cool, though never freezing. I didn’t have a thermometer, but I bet the night temps were between 2-6 C.

    Some random points, roughly in order from San Pedro to San Antonio.

    -Suggested by Elmar and Ellen in the comment above, the sheltered camp spot at the Northeast end of Salar de Aguas Calientes was brilliant. Though I missed it at first. After the descent to the salar, take the road for another 5km or so and then take the track to the right, just before the brow of the last little hill.
    -Friendly folks at the Aduanas Argentinas. Free wifi and a place indoors to spend the night.
    -We took the “main” road (gray on the sketch map) from Aduanas Argentinas straight to Cauchari (i.e., NOT via Catua). The condition of this road was good and you avoid about 300m of climbing, according to Alberto’s GPS. The distance is practically the same as taking the road via Catua. Taking this road is obvious coming from the West. Coming from the East, during the junction madness at Cauchari, first go R then go L (to Salar del Rincon). It is well sign-posted.
    -Much of the road from Olacapata to San Antonio is in very good condition, EXCEPT for the last 20km getting into San Antonio. This last stretch was not short of washboard by any means.
    -There is free municipal camping in San Antonio, right behind the church on the plaza.

    BONUS: Getting to Salta

    Going from San Antonio to Salta (164km) in one long day is possible, thanks to a massive 3,000m descent all on pavement. My original intention was to go straight to Cafayate via Abra del Acay, but I needed my bottom bracket replaced and my camera repaired. I got on the wrong road out of San Antonio so this ruined my chances of getting to Salta in one day, but a few notes if attempting this:

    -Wind is the most important factor. There is always a strong headwind after the pass that starts in the afternoon. Best to do the first 30km over Abra Blanca (4080m) as early as possible. Getting caught on the road after 3 or 4pm will massively hinder your progress.
    -From San Antonio, it is 22km of ripio (though very good condition for most of it) up until the start of the brand new pavement. Another 8km to Abra Blanca (4080m).
    -A few villages on the initial descent, Las Cuevas (46km), Santa Rosa de Tastil (60km), and Alfarcito (71km) (all distances from San Antonio). All villages have water and basic shops. Santa Rosa de Tastil has some very nice pre-Incan ruins, a 100m climb up a dirt road just before the town.
    -After Alfarcito, there is essentially nothing save for a few kioskos until Campo Quijano (130km).
    -There was some ripio for the 15km before Campo Quijano, though it looks like this section is ready for pavement very soon.
    -After Campo Quijano, the traffic starts to thicken with every kilometer. It’s straight all the way to a gigantic traffic circle that puts you onto highway 68 (North) heading towards the city center. Though the traffic is horrible, this section of highway 68 has a massive shoulder.
    -Follow signs for “El Centro” and then calm your nerves with a Grido ice cream on the main square before heading to the ridiculously well-valued Hostal Salta Por Siempre 7 blocks South of the Plaza on Tucuman and Buenos Aires.

    There used to be a Casa del Ciclista in Salta, but Ramon, the owner/bike mechanic, no longer has space. His bike shop is #87 Calle Coronel Moldes, on Plaza Alvarado and he will certainly hook you up with a great price if you need anything done on your bike. They have good quality parts. Also, there is a cobbler just around the corner who did great work for my frame bag – his shop is called “El Tigre”.

    Thanks for making another amazing route so accessible!

    Lee

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