Fiambala – Paso San Francisco – PN Tres Cruces – Lag. Negro Francisco – Paso Pircas Negras – Villa Union
If long, challenging trips through beautiful but inhospitable landscapes are your kind of thing, then this high altitude loop on the Puna is hard to beat. Fiambala is a gem of a town, a great place to relax, and where even holidaying Argentines are surprised by how tranquilo the pace of life is. The draw of this place makes it difficult to leave, but on dragging yourself away make sure you stock up on supplies – the next shop is 650kms away.
In this time you’ll pedal by the biggest volcanoes in the world, freewheel down from high passes and skirt round the shores of spectacular lakes, but human settlements are few and far between. In summer you’ll still come across people – usually in Toyota Hiluxes, but also at the border posts, a couple of mines, some refugios and at La Guardia (population < 10 and the only permanent settlement on this stretch).
At other times of the year it is not possible to cycle this route legally as Paso Pircas Negras is closed. Unlike Paso San Francisco which (weather dependent) is open all year, Chilean immigration at Pircas Negras is only open Thursday-Sunday in January and February.
Although it is only about 12 cycling days from Fiambala to Villa Union, the trip is likely to take longer due to the weather, sorting out Chilean passport stamps, or simply because you want to take a few days off your bike to go and climb one of the many mountains in the area.
Chilean immigration for Paso San Francisco is at Maricunga, 110kms from the pass, which is a detour from the loop described here of about a day irrespective of whether you cycle it or try and catch a lift. (In hindsight, it’s probably best not to take the shortcut we describe here – it’d be easier to stay on the main route towards Maricunga until you hit the larger road that heads south for Laguna Negro Francisco – this would make your hitch, or riding, detour to Maricunga shorter). Rather than complete this loop, it is more common to cycle from Fiambala to Copiapo over Paso San Francisco. The first part of this route is described on this page, and the second part is at the Copiapo to Maricunga route description.
Coming from Fiambala, it takes at least a week to get to Chilean immigration at Pircas Negras. If your timings haven’t gone to plan (which is quite likely as the Puna is a very windy region, so the distance you cycle each day is often not especially within your control) and you arrive Monday-Wednesday, you’ll have to wait around with the Carabineros until the immigration police turn up on Thursday to stamp you out of the country. If you are going in the opposite direction it can be very difficult to get the Gendarmeria at the Argentine immigration post in Vinchina to stamp you out of the country Monday-Wednesday, though you may be able to so long as you can convince them that you will arrive at the Chilean Pircas Negras immigration post between Thursday and Sunday.
Though all food must be brought from Fiambala (or Vinchina/Villa Union if cycling the route in reverse) it is not necessary to carry more than 2 days’ worth of water at any one time – we’ve indicated in the route description where it can be found.
If you are cycling from Villa Union/Vinchina to Copiapo over Paso Pircas Negras good information can be found on Fiona Grant’s information page on masterlyinactivity.com. This will provide you with route information from La Guardia to Copiapo, as well as giving you another take on cycling the La Guardia – Vinchina section of the road.
As with all high altitude routes in the Andes which don’t have much traffic make sure you have sufficient kit of sufficient quality to survive a period of bad weather.
|Fiambala (1,510m). Tranquil place with ATM, good accommodation and restaurants, mini-markets, ice cream parlours and slow internet. Jonson Reynoso can be found in the information office on the corner of the main square. He knows the Puna better than just about anyone, and his daughter runs a good hostel.
|Climb (wind dependent) on tarmac to Argentine immigration at Las Grutas. Emergency refugios (unmanned and with no facilities) on the way make good places to spend the night if the wind is howling. Refugio 1 (2,960m) is 54.9kms from Fiambala; Refugio 2 (3,120m) is 16.6kms further on; Hotel Cortaderas (3,370m) is 27.2kms further on; Refugio 3 (3,460m) a further 17.8kms; Refugio 4 (3,720m) 21.2kms more; Refugio 5 (4,040m) 32.1kms further on. On the way to Refugio 1 there is often a river nearby, but it’s always a bit cloudy and the colour of clay after rain. Water at the hotel, and Refugios 3 and 4 have clear streams nearby.
|Las Grutas (4,040m). Argentine immigration and accommodation at a manned refugio. Water. A few hundred metres after Las Grutas there is a signed turn-off (L) to some termas (indoor but not very hot), 2kms away. Possible to spend the night there for free. To get to the base of Incahuasi continue on the rough track that turns R just before you reach the termas.
|Climb to Paso San Francisco (no water). Good views of Incahuasi and Volcan San Francisco (6,018m – probably the easiest 6,000er in the world, a day walk from the pass).
|Paso San Francisco (4,767m, GPS01) and Refugio 6 (unmanned and like the other 5 refugios has no facilities). The Argentina/Chile border.
|Ripio begins. Descend to the stunning Laguna Verde. Pass the Carabineros after 19.5kms (not manned year-round), then 1.2kms further to a turn-off (R) to a campsite (unmanned these days) and termas.
|Turn-off to Laguna Verde Termas (4,340m, don’t think there’s any drinking water).
|Climb to high point (4,530m) 7.8kms from termas turn-off. Then descend 6.6kms to turn-off to Ojos del Salado. About 10kms from here to the next high point (4,600m), then a further 25kms to the shortcut turnoff to Tres Cruces National Park. No water.
|Turnoff (L) to Tres Cruces National Park (4,390m, GPS02). The turn-off is onto a small, often sandy, track that is virtually unused (the Carabineros are trying to stop people using it as it bypasses the immigration complex at Maricunga), and is on a right hand bend less than 1km after the ‘Tres Cruces’ sign. (Better to continue on the main road to Maricunga to get your immigration stamp, for ~40kms, then backtrack for the main route from there to Laguna Negro Francisco).
|1.9kms to (GPS03). About 1.7kms later go straight (GPS04) (not R on the main track that goes to a 1m high orange metal post). Then about 0.4kms further on go R at junction (GPS05). (We got a bit lost getting from GPS02 to GPS05, but from this junction the route is much easier to follow). Descend 2.9kms to a river bed. Cross dry river bed, (a few kms further down this is the Rio Lama which is the only source of water in the area, but would be a lengthy detour to go to, and not sure if it’s drinkable anyway) then climb 2.4kms to a high point (4,390m). The next 3.3kms is a steep, sandy descent to 4,100m, before a more gentle 7.9kms downhill to meet the main Maricunga/Lag. Negro Francisco road.
|Join main Maricunga – Lag. Negro Francisco road (3,910m, GPS06). Go L. Coming the other way, this junction is signposted ‘Rio Lamas 25km’).
|2.8kms to a junction (straight to Lag. Negro Francisco, R to Copiapo). 8.7kms from here to a stream (not sure if it’s agua potable – we didn’t need to drink from any of the streams around here, and with mines around it might not be a very good idea to unless desperate). Stick to the main track at the many junctions where small mining tracks lead off to the hills. After a further 8.3kms cross another stream, which the road follows for a while.
|3.7kms from crossing the stream go L at a fork. After this there are lots of small forks, but the roads always join up. 16.4kms from the fork you turned L at, go R at another fork. 4.3kms from this fork, reach a high point (4,280m). 7kms from the high point cross a (brown) river, and go R at a fork soon after. 9kms from river crossing get to a junction (4,160m – straight to Lag. Negro Francisco, L to Mina Maricunga). I don’t think this is the main way to get to Mina Maricunga though, so maybe best to go straight then 3kms later turn L to Mina Maricunga at the next junction.
|Junction (4,150m – GPS07). L to Mina Maricunga, straight to CONAF Refugio (4.8kms away on a pretty bad surface – the Guardaparques can give you drinking water in summer when they’re around.)
|(Turning L at Junction GPS07). In 3.3 kms the road from the shortcut from the 4,160m junction rejoins. 4.3kms later, arrive at the entrance to Mina Maricunga.
|Entrance to Mina Maricunga (4,220m). Manned all year, so you can get water. Here you’ll probably be stopped from cycling, and have to wait for a camioneta to take you and your bikes through the mine. On the way the road crosses Abra Mina Maricunga (4,561m).
|Exit Mina Maricunga (4,470m).
|Descend for 18kms to 3,500m – initially road follows a river. Then climb steeply for 5.4kms.
|Pretty descent to main Copiapo-Pircas Negras road at La Guardia.
|La Guardia (2,610m). A few basic houses, but the only settlement between Fiambala and Jague. May be possible to buy bread and cheese from the inhabitants if they are around. Turn R for Copiapo or L for Paso Pircas Negras and Argentina.
|Scenic climb to Chilean immigration. By a stream (which, maybe unwisely, we drank from) most of the way, next to which are loads of great wild campsites. 38.9kms from La Guardia get to the turnoff to Mina Casale (L), but go straight on to Paso Pircas Negras.
|Chilean immigration (3,290m), water. Only open Thursdays-Sundays in January and February. Monday-Wednesday (January and February) it is manned by Carabineros who can’t stamp you out of the country but will probably let you watch their cable TV. The remainder of the year it is illegal to cross into Argentina via this route.
|Climb for 16.7kms to a gate that is open only in Jan/Feb. Then more gentle for 2.2kms to Abra Pircas Negras (4,253m, GPS08). Descend 5kms to a low point (4,030m) before climbing 2.9kms to Paso Pircas Negras. Beautiful scenery. No water.
|Paso Pircas Negras (4,170m). Chile/Argentina border. Tarmac starts.
|Descend 8.5kms to cross Arroyo El Zanjon (there is an old refugio around here somewhere, and Fiona Grant’s page suggests the arroyo (stream) is salty). 5.1kms later cross a big bridge over the Rio Salado (4,070m, salty as the name suggests). Climb 2.4kms to a high point (4,170m), then descend 5.9kms to a bridge over Arroyo Quebrada de los Baños (3,940m, and also apparently not drinkable). Climb 2.9kms to Campamento Barrancas Blancas.
|Campamento Barrancas Blancas (4,040m). Old roadworker camp. Looked lived in but no-one was around when we camped there. Running water (which we drank) in the river over the road, and you follow this for the first part of the climb to come. After leaving the river there is no water until Refugio El Peñon.
|Pass Refugio Barrancas Blancas (L of the road, and dirty) after about 1km. High point (4,420m) after 8.1kms. Then road undulates for 19kms to Abra Veladero (4,487m, GPS09). Good views of Cerro Veladero (6,436m). Descend 2.4kms to Refugio Veladero. All tarmac.
|Refugio Veladero (4,400m). No water, but welcome shelter from the wind.
|Downhill for 12.3kms to Refugio Laguna Brava (off road to R/south). Tarmac ends 4.9kms later. Turn R here, then follow road near Laguna Brava. High point (4,370m) 16.5kms from end of tarmac. 1.4kms further on is Portezuelo de Laguna Brava (4,379m, GPS10). Descend for 11.8kms to Refugio El Peñon.
|Refugio El Peñon (3,600m). Nicer than the other refugios. Water available at a pipe a few hundred metres down the road to Vinchina.
|14kms of descent to Quebrada Santo Domingo (river – doesn’t look very tasty after rain). Tarmac starts straight after the river. 7.8kms from river reach another road workers’ camp (manned both times we passed, so water available). Fast 33.9km descent to turn-off to Jague.
|Turn-off to Jague (1,890m). First water since roadworkers’ camp (there is none at ‘Punta de Agua’ which is marked on some maps). If you don’t need water or supplies don’t bother leaving the tarmac to go to the village.
|Descend to Vinchina. About 8kms of ripio, the rest is tarmac.
|Enter Vinchina (1,480m). Go R near the beginning of town to go to the Gendarmeria (signposted) for your entry stamp. There are shops, restaurants and accommodation in this very long town.
|Head back to the main road from the Gendarmeria. 29.5kms to Castelli, then 35.5kms further to Villa Union.
|Villa Union (1,150m). Nice town with accommodation, shops, restaurants, tour agencies, ATM.
|Time taken – 12 days and amount climbed – 8,960m
|17 hours: Fiambala – Las Grutas (3,050m climb).
6 hours: Las Grutas – Laguna Verde camping (780m climb, headwind).
7 hours: Laguna Verde – Turnoff to Tres Cruces NP (540m climb, headwind).
10 hours: Turnoff to Tres Cruces – Laguna Negro Francisco (750m climb).
11 hours: Laguna Negro Francisco – Chilean Pircas Negras Immigration (1,370m climb).
5 hours: Chilean Immigration – Campamento Barrancas Blancas (1,450m climb, tailwind)
3 hours: Campamento Barrancas Blancas – Refugio Veladero (580m climb)
9 hours: Refugio Veladero – Vinchina (390m climb)
4 hours: Vinchina – Villa Union (50m climb).
|A few vehicles an hour from Fiambala to Paso San Francisco. Roadwork traffic until turn-off to Tres Cruces NP. Nothing on shortcut to Maricunga-Laguna Negro Francisco road. A few mine vehicles an hour from there to La Guardia. A couple of vehicles a day from La Guardia to Laguna Brava, then more to Jague. Plenty after Jague.
|When we cycled
|How much we had to push on this route
|4 kms (sand)
|Paso San Francisco
|26.8735 S, 68.2988 W, 4,767m.
|Turn L to Tres Cruces NP
|27.0458 S, 68.8921 W, 4,390m.
|27.0630 S, 68.8932 W, 4,400m.
|27.0764 S, 68.8974 W, 4,430m.
|27.0786 S, 68.8957 W, 4,440m.
|Join Maricunga-Lag Neg Francisco rd
|~27.1064 S, ~69.0230 W, 3,910m.
|Junction (L to Mina Maricunga)
|27.4950 S, 69.2159 W, 4,150m.
|Abra Pircas Negras
|28.0255 S, 69.2916 W, 4,253m.
|28.2296 S, 68.9349 W, 4,487m.
|Portezuelo de Laguna Brava
|28.4011 S, 68.8492 W, 4,379m.
View Fiambala – Villa Union in a larger map