Up until San Pedro de Atacama, we’d pre planned meticulously. Travel through Chile and Argentina had always seemed more complex and therefore out of laziness we had banished any thought of it into the very back of our minds. It was only in San Pedro that we realized we’d been so careless, and graciously took up refuge in Carlos’ house (Warmshowers) for some much needed research. We ended up staying a week, waiting for a package and reading about various different routes. Riding through northern Chile was immediately ruled out due to the heat. We were left with three crossings over to Argentina. Jama, Sico, and last but not the slightest bit least, Socompa.
Paso Socompa, the ideal route for our chubby wheeled machines. Promising a tough and uncompromising ride across a lonely and relatively unexplored landscape. The beauty of the route, as we found out, is that there are plenty of opportunities to ride your own ride. Guilherme at Bbikes in San Pedro offloaded us with a bunch of maps, affirming as well that the ride would be the path least traveled across the border and into the Argentinian Puna.
We left San Pedro early, hoping to avoid the scorching midday heat. After our farewells with Carlos we cruised down the asphalt towards Peine where we planned to camp out for the night. A route like Socompa requires pretty diligent water rationing so despite our early arrival in Peine we decided it best to stay near a water source for the night. Putting on my best “tired cyclist” face I asked a local mine worker for a spot to pitch up. He immediately brought us to his backyard and told us to “Disfruta en su casa” (relax in your house).
In the morning we loaded up with all the water our bikes could handle and set off. From Peine things began to change. The flat landscape started to develop bumps which got larger and larger. Eventually we found ourselves undulating and twisting through rolling hills comprised of volcanic rock. While the Socompa pass may not be a monster in terms of its measly 3900m elevation, Socompa itself is most definitely a monster. And climbing up to the pass, it’s 6,200m peak absolutely dominated the skyline. It’s an absolutely beautiful setting for possibly the most uneventful and boring border on earth. Rocking up, it felt like a wild west frontier town with creaking metal and wooded signs to boot. On the Chilean side it wasn’t all that difficult to find the Carabineros (Police station), but once on the Argentinian side we went from abandoned building to abandoned building trying to find the border post.
Finally we saw a more lived in structure and knocked on the door. We were greeted by a very unofficial looking official who beckoned us inside. Business here was conducted very slowly, as if it had to be savored. After all, it might very well be another 4 months until another person passed through. 45 minutes later, after much small talk and friendly conversation, our passports had finally been stamped. We had also been offered a hot shower, some bread, and a building to sleep in. The offer was so enticing we couldn’t turn it down. We were left to the privacy of our own little home for the night.
The following day the scenery transformed once again. We were finally in the Puna, surrounded by the wonderfully contrasted colours which make it so legendary and unique. Rolling sandy mountains of all colours, and roads which seemed to change hues every few kilometers. Unfortunately my camera battery died near Salar de Arizaro and I was committed to documenting one of the most beautiful areas with Gina’s point and shoot, mostly unsuccessfully. The wind was absolutely mental, but luckily to our backs most of the time. On occasion it would cross to our side and almost blow us off our bikes. From here until Tolar Grande, this is the type of wind we experienced. 80km/h and usually pushing us in full force towards our destination. Our next crossing headed back to Chile will surely be a very different experience.
While I can’t say for sure how “unridden” it truly is, neither the Chilean nor Argentinian border guards could remember the last time someone had ridden through. This is the kind of route where you might see a tire track, and it could well have been from 8 months ago. It’s definitely an interesting and challenging option if you’re looking to get off the beaten track.
Velofreedom, Theridesouth, and Andes by bike are all great resources for route info. Also, if you’re passing through San Pedro go chat with Guilherme at Bbikes for more good tips! Read our route information below for some quick observations and shortcut ideas.
ROUTE INFORMATION (KM markers might be slightly different due to our modified route)
Here two maps that could come handy:
We rode from San Pedro to Tolar Grande in 5 moderate days, mostly tailwind, travelling light.
- 0k, San Pedro: BBikes, bike shop with nice guys who know what they’re doing
- 100k, Peine: small town, fesh bread in a shop by the plaza around 6pm, tough to camp in a public area apparently as a lot of the land is “sacred”. Last reliable good water for at least 45k
- 114k: Saline stream, we took a bit to try and it was drinkable but not that nice
- 145k: Water at Pozo no. 6, from the Pozo walk towards the building and you’ll see a pipe dripping water. Looks like it’s been running for awhile so I’d say it’s reliable. Tasted fine but I’d personally recommend filtering.
- 185k: Estación Neurara, here we merged onto the train tracks saving us 700m of climbing as well as a few km in distance. The surface is a bit rough but we think for anyone riding light it would be worthwhile. Even on a loaded rig I doubt you’d have to push more than a kilometer or two. You merge back on to the road 4-5km before Estacion Monteraqui. Really nice and scenic too! NOTE: trains haven’t run since 2001 but we were told they were running again in a week’s time, so if you take this route keep an eye out!
- 230k: Border. Note that Socompa cannot be crossed with vehicles like cars or motorbikes. Friendly guys at the Argentinian border who’ll give you a place to sleep. Stock up on water until Chuculaqui which most likely won’t be more than a day depending on how light and fast you’re riding. Water obv.
- 281k: Water at Estación Chuculaqui. Thanks to Paul G for this tip. We had a bit of trouble finding it because we didn’t read the notes close enough. Walk east along the tracks from the main building until you see water trickling down the hill. Follow it up about 50m and there is a beautiful pipe spouting out water right next to some shelter for camping (-24.74763 latitude, -68.06180 longitude)
- 366k: Tolar Grande – There is free WiFi at the school (Password: MineriaSalta), accommodation is still around 100 pesos per person. Two shops with basic stuff but enough for a restock to your next destination. Buses to San Antonio run every Friday and apparently cost 100 Pesos if anyone feels they need somewhere bigger to restock.
Echoing what Nathan said on his blog, don’t head off on this unprepared. It’s not that tough but make sure you’ve got food and water well sussed.
Despite the dry environment, flowers were popping up everywhere. Someone told us it wasn’t normal at this time of year but I can’t confirm that.
The first 150km are a flat and dry affair. Things start out a bit boring but spice up quickly
Would you drink this water? Pozo no. 6 has a leaking pipe and the water wasn’t half bad. Of course I’ve yet to see if I grow tentacles.
Finally some hills come into play. Normally climbing is nothing to celebrate but it’s a welcome change from the flat road we’ve been on.
Rocking some new Zeal shades. Much needed in this sun.
Unfortunately Gina’s camelback developed a leak. Not something you want to happen on a dry remote bit of riding. Thanks has to go out to Paul Griffiths who gave us some seamgrip in Huaraz. It worked a treat.
First kick on our little train track route. Pretty good surface saving 700m of climbing.
In 2001 the trains stopped running, but evidence of a different time exists. Trains “apparently” are to resume schedule in the next month.
The signs may need a bit of an overhaul
That’s it for photos on this one, camera died. Boooo. Will have to be more careful on the next stretch.