Salar de Pocitos to El Eje via Antofagasta de la Sierra

Salar de Pocitos – Salar del Hombre Muerto – Abra Falda Cienaga – Antofagasta de la Sierra – El Peñon – El Eje

This cycle takes you through Argentina’s loneliest town, Antofagasta de la Sierra, which lies on the Puna with no villages for 230kms to the north and only little El Peñon for company in the 150kms to the south. The main difficulties cycling this route are the frequently bad state of the road on the 95km stretch between the Salar del Hombre Muerto and Antofagasta, and the lack of water north of Antofagasta.

We carried 15 litres of water per person from Pocitos and this was easily enough for the 3 days it took to get to Antofagasta. There is a mine on the south side of Salar del Hombre Muerto which is only a couple of kilometres off the road and if you wanted to carry less water you could detour here (which is half way time-wise from Pocitos to Antofagasta) to get some from the miners. South of Antofagasta water is less of a problem as you can find it at El Peñon and from there it is under 100kms to the first settlement in the valley that leads to El Eje.

Near El Peñon it is possible to turn east off the road to climb Cerro Laguna Blanca – at 6,012m the second lowest 6,000er in the Andes.

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Total dist. Stage dist. Description
0km Salar de Pocitos (3,700m). Small settlement with basic shops, restaurant but no accommodation.
91.0km Head east from town and in 2.9kms go R at a junction (signposted Catamarca). The road is initially by the Salar de Pocitos, with only gentle climbs. Saw nothing at Agua Amarga (marked on ACA map). 48.3kms from the junction the road is by a stream (not sure if it’s drinkable) in a green valley. 5.8kms later you pass Los Colorados (road workers’ houses about 0.5kms off road to west – in an emergency it may be possible to get water but don’t rely on it). 19kms from Los Colorados arrive at the turn-off to Tolar Chico (off the road to the R – didn’t look inhabited). 15kms later is the junction to Mina Tincalayu. As far as here the surface was mostly good.
91.0km Turn-off to Mina Tincalayu (3,970m). The mine is off left. Stay straight on the main road.
44.1km Climb 14.8km to a high point (4,200m) then descend 8.7kms to a police post (may occasionally be occupied) on the north shore of Salar del Hombre Muerto. . Enter the Salar, then in 2.2kms get to a junction. The main road (with a gate) goes L/straight to the FMC Minera Altiplano, while a small track goes off to the R. (We went towards the mine, but if you go R this is the shortest route to Antofagasta, avoiding a 15km detour. The surface may well be terrible, however). Continuing on the main road it is 18.4kms across the Salar to a junction (straight to the mine – about 1-2kms away, and R to Antofagasta (signposted)). The surface on this 44km section was good.
135.1km Junction on the south shore of the Salar del Hombre Muerto (4,000m). Go R to Antofagasta.
35.8km Road immediately deteriorates. Skirt the Salar for 9.4kms to La Aguadita school (uninhabited). Climb from here for 0.7kms to a junction (go L, R goes to Mina Incahuasi). Then 0.4kms to another junction (GPS01 – go L) where the short cut from the junction on the Salar del Hombre Muerto rejoins. (Coming from the south there is a signpost here that says R to La Aguadita and San Antonio de los Cobres). 12.3kms from this junction the road splits – go L unless you want to tackle the steep shortcuts. The next 13kms to the pass the surface is just about all bad, and sometimes steep.
170.9km Abra Falda Cienaga (4,442m – GPS02). The highest point on a flat section of road.
58.4km Road undulates for about 15kms. There is a Difunta Correa shrine 12.6kms after the pass, so if you’re desperate for water… 24.1kms from the pass you reach a river (4,150m, not sure if it’s drinkable). 13.7kms from the river you reach a junction (R goes to Nacimientos and Antofalla, stay straight for Antofagasta). 3kms later you get to a few houses at Paycuqui (looked inhabited), and there are houses in the valley from here to Antofagasta. 12kms after Paycuqui, and only 5 kms from Antofagasta, the road becomes a sandy, corrugated mess for a few kilometres.
229.3km Antofagasta de la Sierra (3,400m). A nice little town with accommodation, restaurants, internet, ATM and shops.
61.0km Gentle descent from town. Low point (3,060m) is 46kms from Antofagasta. Gentle 15km climb to El Peñon – tarmac starts 9kms before the village.
290.3km El Peñon (3,400m). Small village with basic shops and accommodation.
23.6km Climb gently from the village. After 8.7kms it is possible to headed east to climb Cerro Laguna Blanca. It is 14.9kms from here to the pass.
313.9km Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura (3,996m – GPS03).
81.2km Descend 8.8kms to a low point (3,770m), then climb again for 9kms to 3,970m. Descend 12.4kms to a place it’s possible to camp (one of the few sheltered spots on this section of road). Descend  for 12.4kms to the turn-off to Laguna Blanca village. The road is then flat for 20kms before beginning to descend down a valley. First houses (2,950m) are 27.5kms from Laguna Blanca village turn-off. 2kms later the tarmac ends. 9.1kms of ripio to Barranca Larga.
395.1km Barranca Larga. Small village with accommodation, shops.
45.3km Continue descent. 18.6kms to Villa Vil (larger village with accommodation, internet, shops), then 5.7kms to the start of the tarmac again. From here it’s 13kms to Puerta de Corral Quemado, turn L and it’s a further 8kms to El Eje and Ruta 40.
440.4km El Eje (1,780m). Petrol station and a few houses on Ruta 40.
Time taken – 5 days and amount climbed – 3,600m 12 hours: Salar de Pocitos – South side of Salar del Hombre Muerto (1,060m climb).
5 hours: Salar del Hombre Muerto – Abra Falda Cienaga (730m climb, tailwind).
6 hours: Abra Falda Cienaga – Antofagasta (310m climb).
4 hours: Antofagasta – El Peñon (430m climb).
6 hours: El Peñon – Laguna Blanca village turn-off (870m climb, headwind).
5 hours: Laguna Blanca village turn-off – El Eje (200m climb, headwind).
Traffic A few trucks an hour from Pocitos to the south side of Salar del Hombre Muerto. Very little from there to Antofagasta. About 10 vehicles a day from there to Villa Vil, then more.
When we cycled Mid December 2010.
Difficulty 3/4
How much we had to push on this route 2kms (bad surface)

GPS Point Description Lat/Long/Altitude
GPS01 Junction 25.4512 S, 67.1919 W, 4,080m.
GPS02 Abra Falda Cienaga 25.6355 S, 67.2318 W, 4,442m.
GPS03 Port. de Pasto Ventura 26.6695 S, 67.2238 W, 3,996m.

Antofagasta de la Sierra route
Nearby routes:          Susques to Salar de Pocitos                   Paso Sico                  Cuesta de Zapata

5 Responses to “Salar de Pocitos to El Eje via Antofagasta de la Sierra”

  1. Danny and Tamara 06/01/2016 at 17:53 # Reply

    We cycled from north-south in December 2015. A few notes:
    – The northern part of the road appears to be recently improved; in fact, there was a grader working on it while we were there! After the first 2 km from Pocitos, we diverged east to Santa Rosa de los Pastos Grandes rather than following the notes above, so I´m not how far south the smooth road goes. Not wanting to backtrack from Santa Rosa, we headed straight south from there, passing a bunch of mines and meeting back up with this route at km 91. The road didn`t appear to be recently improved south from km 91. Our notes for the detour as well as our experience on the route above are on our blog at http://bikesandbackpacks.blogspot.com7/2015/12/northern-argentina-where-even.html
    – The police checkpoint at km 114.5 was not manned when we passed and made for a solid windbreak to camp.
    – There was no gate 2.2 kms into the Salar del Hombre Muerto, and the junction is not apparent (we missed it). If you don´t need to divert to the mine, look carefully for that intersection, as taking the right will save you not only 15 km, but also loads of time, as the road from the mine back to the main road is severely corrugated and directs you straight west into the wind.
    – There is water from a pipe just below La Aguadita school, but it tasted weird to us, so we didn´t drink it. There is a trickle of water a few kilometers before (north of) Abra Falda Cienaga, around km 165, which would work if you´re really in a pinch. We didn´t see any water bottles at the Difunta Correa shrine at km 183.5, but the river after that at km 195 is drinkable (with treatment). The road also crosses what appeared to be the same river at Paycuqui.
    – Ascending Abra Falda Cienaga, there are a few junctions to steep shortcuts. We didn´t diverge from the main road, and although the road is sandy in parts, this part wasn´t any steeper than the rest of the route and was very cyclable. The road is generally awful from before the pass all the way to Antofagasta. We did not have to push except for a few meters here and there, but the deep corrugations and soft sand made progress slow and frustrating at times.
    – Just after the Difunta Correa shrine at km 183.5, there are some boulders off the road to the left (east) and down a short, steep hill that looked like they would make a great windbreak and campsite. There are some more about 10 km after that which did make a fantastic campsite for us.
    – Pavement now begins in Antofagasta, though there are many sections before El Peñon where it has disintegrated. Smooth tarmac from there. The road is still ripio before and after Barranca Larga, although fairly well surfaced until asphalt begins at Villa Vil (rather than 5.7 kms after) and continues to the 40.
    – According to the sign at El Eje, it´s 48 kms from there to Belen on Ruta 40. Good shoulder, little traffic the whole way except for the last 10 kms where the shoulder ends.

  2. Brigitte & Ivo 12/01/2016 at 01:32 # Reply

    Thank you for your route description. We did some Puna riding and here is our update:

    The stream at los Colorados (52km after Pocitos) has now a small dam with a tube in it’s beginning. We have drunken the water (with filtering, slightly marshy) without problems after the people in Pocitos advised us the place as reliable watersource. If you like better water and don’t mind a detour the road worker house a bit further is still inhabited (due to locals) .

    The water tank at the unmanned police station (north side of Salar del Hombre Muerto) is still full. Not very reliable, but can make a good emergency option.

    Danny and Tamara missed the junction 2.2km into Salar del Hombre Muerto because the dam for this direct road to Antofagasta over the salar is broken (check and no longer used by cars – so the turn off has nearly disapeared and people told us that it is intransitable.

    When coming from Barranca Larga towards Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura the last good watersource is the pipe at the Vialidad house 10.3km after Barranca Larga.

    There is a Puesto shortly before Portezuelo de Pasto Ventura (coming from Barranca Larga) where you can get water (500m offroad). When people are out, there is probably water in the Vega behind the house.

  3. iio 08/06/2017 at 15:43 # Reply

    I just did the ride from SAdlC to Belen at mid May.
    Here´s some update and my viewpoint.

    1. SAdlC to Olacapato

    Very Painful ride, the weather forecast a little bit wrong.
    I got a strong headwinds, and getting stronger when approaching to the pass.
    And According to my opinion, the road condition is bad, bumpy and sandy.
    At Olacapato, there´s accommodation, however it has no sign, got to ask local people.
    100 peso a night per person.

    2. Olacapato to Salar de Pocitos
    Road Condition a little bit better, and at Pocitos, there´s accommodation too.(Also has no sign)

    3. Salar de Pocitos to south shore of the Salar del Hombre Muerto

    Road is OK.
    And now the junction from the 2.2km is basically closed.
    I can see the road elongate from the junction, but it´s blocked by an high embankment.
    I didn´t even think about to try cross it. So I directly headed to the miner factory.
    The Main road is good and possible to get water or food from the track drivers.

    4. South Shore to Abra Falda Cienaga

    The road is also still sandy currently.
    But at that time I got the help from strong tail winds, if the wind direction is opposite, it could be a nightmare.
    At about 4300m a car stopped and invited me on the car.
    I am just a newb cyclist, tired and has no ambitions.
    So I got it on.

    5. Abra Falda Cienaga to Antofagasta

    I was in the car, the description might not exactly as riding a bike.
    The road condition continuous, and lots of junction from or merge to the main road.
    The main road sometimes covered by heavy snow or ice(in the mid May)
    I guess that´s why there´s so much junctions and sub-road.

    6. Antofagasta to El Penon

    Road Condition has greatly improved.
    The first 19KM from Antofagasta now is well paved.
    Then 12KM unpaved road (Bumpy), to the lowest point
    And road paved to El Penon all the way.
    But the paved situation is not very good, some parts are already etched.
    Be careful the entire etched one, it´s relatively sandy, if ride too fast, the bike may be slide.

    7. El Penon to Ruta 40

    The tarmac disappeared pretty much at the same location.
    And now the paved way elongate to the Villa Vile.
    Then All the way to Ruta 40

    When I say bumpy, it is resulted by heavy vehicles footage.
    It makes sand waves, 15 to 20 cm high, 30 to 40 cm width.
    My bike is a normal road bike, has no front or rear shock like mountain bikes.
    And I was injured my low back, so it´s very hard to me to ride through those bumpy parts.


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