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. Not that steep and on ok surface.
28km Alto Chorrillos (4,555m – GPS02).
34km Descend on ok though slightly sandy and corrugated surface. 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. Surface fine.
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. Good surface.
84km Start of climb.
11km Climb up a valley to the pass – easy gradient and an ok surface.
95km Abra de Arizaro (4,330m – GPS03).
14km Descend to Catua. First 2kms on an ok surface, then 12kms of sand and washboard. Nice scenery.
109km Junction – R to Catua, 1 km away (3,980m – GPS04, basic accommodation, basic supplies and water), straight to Aduanas Argentinas.
17km Short climb for 1km then descent to Aduanas Argentinas. Surface for first 4kms is ok, then bad for 10kms (the worst on this whole route), before improving for the last few kms.
126km Aduanas Argentinas (3,830m – GPS05). Water.
12km Gentle climb, ok surface.
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. Ok surface, great scenery.
149km Abra Sico (4,458m – GPS06).
6km Descend on ok surface.
155km Low point (4,250m) between Abra Sico and Abra El Laco.
4km Climb on ok surface. Not too steep.
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 on ok surface.
163km Abra El Laco (4,578m – GPS08). The highest point on this route.
3km Descent on ok surface.
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. Ok surface.
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. Surface still ok. 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. This is probably the highest paved road in the Americas, but when 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.
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

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