Chile 2016 - practical hints

General information about Chile

Chile stretches across abouth 4300 kilometers from north to south along the western side of the Andes. The east-west extent is rarely more than 200 kilometers. Therefore, Chile comprises all climate zones of the world except for tropical rainforest. Chile has a population of 18 million, out of which about 6 million are living in the region Metropolitania (Santiago and surroundings). The majority of the remaining population is concentrated to the "small south" between Santiago and Puerto Montt which has a climate comparable to the Mediterranean Sea and is quite fertile. The "big south" as well as the "big north" are rather sparsely populated. In the south there is hardly any infrastructure and almost permanently bad weather. The north is one of the world's driest regions. Some areas of Atacama desert are said to have received no precipitation since 400 years.
Unlike other South American countries, Chile is generally well organized. Public traffic is in time, the police takes care of order (and not their own pockets), and the crime rate probably is not much different to France of Italy.
A basic knowledge of Spanish language is an advantage, only few Chileans speak an understandable English. (Nevertheless, if you want to hear completely incomprehensible English, you can also fly from Madrid to Munich with Iberia.)
Chile's timezone is 5 hours before middle European daylight saving time, or 3 hours before GMT. On our arrival in the beginning of August it was 4 hours before GMT, in the middle of August obviously time was changed to summer time.


Chile's currency is the peso (CLP, $). In August 2016 we received $ 730 for an Euro. In Calama it was a bit difficult to change money (only possible at Banco Estado, and the queue at the counter was rather long). Later we found an exchange office in the city center (Sotomayor 2125). In San Pedro de Atacama there are many private exchange offices giving an exchange rate about 10% worse than at the bank. The alternative is the ATM of Banco Estado in San Pedro, where up to $200 000 can be withdrawn from credit card (rate was 750). You have to add $4000 ATM bank fees and the fees by the credit card company (2% for cash withdrawal + 1% for use abroad).


Concerning cell phone use, there was a peculiarity: None of us prepaid card customers of German Telekom could use the cell phone for calling. There was only an announcement that this service would be temporarily unavailable due to security reasons, but the given phone number for further information could not be called like any other number, too. Sending and receiving SMS worked well. Since we couldn't expect any cell phone coverage in the most areas outside the villages, we did not buy a Chilean prepaid card.

Region Calama/San Pedro de Atacama

This time. we traveled only in the II. region in der area of Calama and San Pedro de Atacama.
Calama is a desert town at about 2200 m elevation. It has about 145000 inhabitants which all more or less deal with the mining industry. There are no touristic attractions in Calama. The mean annual precipitation is 27 mm (thereof 16 mm in January). This makes Calama one of the driest spots in the world.
The copper mine Chuquicamata about 15 km north of the town is the world's largest open-mine pit (1 km deep, 4 km long, 3 km wide). Huge trucks bring the ore up from the bottom of the hole, then it is milled and further processes. Main process steps are flotation and electrolysis, needing large amounts of water and electricity. Currently, Chuqui contributes about 10% of the world's copper production. Because the open pit can hardly grow any more (the hole would become unprofitably big), a conversion to a high-tech belowground mine is in concept phase. With more than 1000 kilometers of galleries, the new mine shall be the largest and most modern belowground mine of the world, working almost entirely automated. Chuquicamata can be visited on a free tour from Calama which must be reserved in advance by e-mail to at least a week before the aimed date.
San Pedro de Atacama is about 100 km southeast of Calama at the rim of Salar (salt lake) de Atacama. 20 years ago a sleepy jerkwater town, meanwhile it has changed to the tourist destination in northern Chile, with hotels, hostels, restaurants and tour agencies. Sort of the Zermatt of northern Chile, and the prices clearly reflect this. Simple accomodation is about $15000 per person and night, the restaurant prices are almost like in Germany.
While in 1996 the attractions could be visited for a small voluntary fee, meanwhile especially in the direct surroundings, whatever possible is commercialized. This includes attracting solvent clients by absurd fun sports activity like sandboarding, which (the way I see it) contributed to further increase of price level. In the years 2000 to 2015, the high plains east of San Pedro de Atacama were discovered for radio astronomy. In the dry climate together with the high altitude of about 5000 m the radio signal absorption by terrestrial water vapor is minimal. Therefore, several radio telescopes are situated here: Obviously the roads to Sairecabur and to Toco are kept in reasonable condition also because of the research activities. So also mountaineers profit from the development.

Information about the mountains

Climbing permit

For Chilean mountains close to the border, still a climbing permit is needed. It is issued by Dirección de Fronteras y Límites (DIFROL); nowadays it can also been applied for via internet (external -> Autorizaciones -> Expediciones de Andinismo). At least 20 days before the trip, fill the form with the scheduled destinations and dates, list all participants (including nationality and passport number). After a few days you receive the permit by e-mail. You then have to register at the corresponding carabineros post (for the mountains around San Pedro de Atacama, these are the carabineros in San Pedro, for the volcanoes San Pedro/San Pablo the carabineros in Incaliri). After returning from the trip, you inform them that you are back. The whole thing obviously has some safety aspect, that nobody should get lost out there at the mountains. The carabineros were not very responsive about our plans to change the schedule, but we could convince them that such a long-term date fixation makes no sense when it is about mountaineering. It was then problem to withdraw some planned mountains; probably it would have been difficult to add new ones.
A rather incomprehensible particularity of this permit procedure is that only persons who do not live in Chile need a permit. We as foreign tourists, but also a Chilean living abroad needs one. All "normal" Chileans need none.

Mountains which we visited, from north to south:

Volcán San Pedro (6145 m): not attempteed

We had a applied for a permit for the volcano couple San Pedro / San Pablo and also received it. But these two are even a little more remote and the climb is more laborious than Acamarachi. Besides, the shortest access is on the south side which is longer in the shadow, therefore not very suited for long day trips. We had withdrawn San Pedro and San Pablo from our program because after Acamarachi and Toco nobody had a big desire to four days camping at the mountains any more. niemand mehr so recht Lust auf vier Tage Zelten am Berg hatte.
The image shows the two mountains seen from Lasana, distance about 50 km.

Tatio Sur (5200 m)

The Tatio volcanoes from a small chain east of the Tatio geysers. It is hard to find on the map which one is Tatio, Tatio Norte or Tatio Sur. We believe that the southermost mountain of the chain is Tatio Sur, and this one was our aim. It is characterized by steepening, delicate rubble slopes. From the pass at the road south of the Tatio geysers (4400 m), we traversed a small road into a valley and from there we went directly up; as it steepened we moved up leftwards. At the right side it looked like a rock band would block the slope, maybe not passable. On the top there is a vast plateau (about 500 m long); the highest of the three summits is the southernmost with 5200 m. The final 150 height meters to the north ridge were 45° steep, practically completely loose rock. Very delicate and awkward. For the descent I could find a scree couloirs a few meters to the east. Ascent time 4-5 hours, the descent is considerably faster.
Our ascent is on the back side of the mountain and cannot be seen on the image.

Cerro Colorado (5748 m)

Claudia climbed Cerro Colorado from a height of 4550 m from north-northwest. The lower part is not too coarse rubble, which can be walked more or less well. From about 5000-5100 m on, the terrain is steeper and merges to the north ridge; the ridge is peppered with very big, loose rocks. The descent is better done further right, where one finds finer grained scree slopes.
Ascent about 5 hours. Also here: Descent much faster, about 2 hours.

Cerro Jorquencal (4971 m)

This hill can be accessed up to 4550 m by car from the north. From there the mountain is an easy hike through puna grass; slowly steepening terrain leads up directly to the summit. The time for the ascent strongly depends on the state of acclimatization; since this mountain is preferably used as a first accliatization step, one can expect any time from 1 to 3 hours for the ascent.

Cerro Sairecabur (5971 m)

We failed at Sairecabur, because there was too much snow on the road. We had to leave the car at 5120 m; if the road is free of snow, one can drive up to 5700 m. In the upper region, the road leads through several small plateaus without much height gain, and traversing these plateaus on foot is a rather tough walk. If one can (could) drive to the end of the road, probably it is only a stone's throw to the summit. At the very summit there is a little climbing on very big rocks - at least we remember such things from our climb in 1996 when this road did not yet exist and we had come from the north.
From the north there is a road which already in 1996 had been in quite bad condition. According to Openstreetmap it leads up to 5250 m, and on the satellite image it can be seen up to the area between Saciel and Sairecabur. If that is better than the newer road on the south/west side, I cannot tell.

Cerro Toco (5604 m)

Cerro Toco is the most visited 5000 m peak in the area, many agencies offer it as a half day trip. From the road to Paso de Jama, at 4250 m an unpaved road branches off, leading to the base of Toco up to 5250 m. It is in much better condition than e.g. the road at Sairecabur. So the summit is only a 350 m height gain away, and this can be done on a well-worn trail - unique in this area where any other mountain climb involves more or less delicate balancing over some loose pebbles.
The main summit can be easily identified by the broadest trail which leads to there. The - more snowy - western summit is about 10 m lower. There is an excellent panoramic view from the main summit, and this is also one of the few point from where one can see the ALMA telescopes really well. Take a camera with a good optical zoom.

Cerro Negro de Pujsa (5135 m)

This is a small satellite of Pili which offers a good view for a reasonably small effort. From Pili base camp (4575 m) climb the south-west slope. First a bit to SE, crossing a gully; then, where the terrain allows turning towards NE, follow the slope upwards. One can see only the slope, making orientation a bit difficult. The summit comes into view only about 100 height meters before. No technical difficulties, walking terrain with sometimes a bit loose scree (but better than at Tatio or Colorado). 2-3 hours for the ascent, 1 hour for the descent.

Volcán Acamarachi (Pili) (6046 m)

Acamarachi is the highest mountain of Cordón de Puntas Negras and the only 6000 m peak within a radius of about 100 kilometers. In its central position, it has several neighbours at almost the same height, therefore it can hardly be seen from further away. Like most mountains here it is a volcano, but obviously it had not been active since a few thousand years. It has a tiny crater lake of about 10 meters diameter which at our visit had been covered by a collapsed ice layer.
Since the new road to Paso de Jama had been built, the easiest access is Salar de Pujsa in the north. With a car more or less suitable for dirt roads, one can follow the tracks from Ch-27 to the south. The small river north of Cerro Negro de Pujsa can be crossed at a suitable ford which should be carefully explored (mostly the river is frozen with running water below). The base camp (about 20 km from the paved road) is at 4575 m at the creek west of Cerro Negra de Pujsa where the valley bend from a north-south to a northeast.southwest direction. From here one can see very steep vehicle tracks further up to southeast which can be used only with a very good all terrain vehicle. I have found some advice that one should not drink the water in the creeks around Acamarachi because of arsenic pollution.
From the casecamp, follow the vehicle traces to the saddle in the southeast and from there traverse into the valley southeastward, towards Acamarachi, with a height loss of about 35 meters. Where the traces end, there are some good places for camp 1 (4880 m). The sun disappeards quite early behind the mountain, but in the morning it comes very early.
From camp 1, the route follows the valley between Acamarachi and the small hummock directly north of it, in order to reach the high plain called "shoulder". There is no continuous trail, even if time and again there is a kind of trace for a few meters. Painful ascent on loose rock the the "shoulder", 5470 m. Until here it took 3 hours for us. From the shoulder, we followed the left hand side ridge which is not very pronounced. Here we sometimes found pieces of beaten path, and in between these paths there are again loose rocks. The terrain is steep (35°), but one gains altitude quite fast. Sometimes it is useful to use the hands. This route does not agree with the description in external linkandeshandbook, but I think it tends to use better terrain than the loose scree route between the two ridges. Further above, the slope becomes less steep, the summit can be reached directly or via the right side. Not real climbing, but also not real walking terrain. From the shoulder to the summit 3-4 hours.
During the descent it is worthwile to visit the small lake west of the summit, it is considered one of the highest lakes in the world. On the satellite image, unfortunately it can only hardly be seen.
On the descent to the shoulder we followed a well trodden trace on the right side of our ridge, but this trace leads to the top of a steep precipice. We then traversed back to our original trace through delicate scree with vertical cliffs. Better don't even go down there! Back the camp 1 about 1-2 hours. The track on the map also shows our error in the descent.

Cerro Corona (5291 m)

Cerro Corona probably has its name from the many small summits on its former crater edge; from far away the look like a little crown. The mountain is (rightly) not often visited. Starting point is the pass at 4350 m on the way from Talabre to Laguna Lejía. From there go eastwards towards the right end of a ridge coming down from the summit. Follow this ridge up in northeasterly direction; mostly the rocks/scree are more or less solid. At 5050 m the base of the actual "crown" is reached which consists of loose scree. Having fought your way to the summit "plateau", you have to have to find the right one out of all those small rock towers - that one which carries the summit box with the book. 4 hours from the pass, descent 1-2 hours. In the upper part very loose rubble, in the summit region very steep.

Remark about the summit heights

On the summits which are also referenced on the printed map, our GPS (Garmin etrex 30) showed about 9 meters too high in all cases. The GPS accuracy reading was mostly about 3 meters. Though this basically refers to the lateral accuracy, we can speculate that the height accuracy is similar. Since the mountain heights relative to each other correspond well to the map, also Sairecabur's height of 5971 m is probably correct. Quite sure therefore, it is not a 6000 m peak.

Equipment for mountains and camping

On the mountains we had good all-round mountaineering boots or old plastic mountaineering boots. The plastic boots are not really necessary, but because we know that the sand and the sharp-edged scree is not good for the shoes on a longer time basis, we fetched some old boots from our expedition equipment where a damage would not worry.
Rain pants are good against the wind; a down jacket is a good choice. Only fleece and/or Goretex turned out to be insufficient. Temperatures are not extremely low, but the wind comes through almost all clothes.
Our sleeping bags could have been thicker, we underestimated the cold of the night a little. They should have a comfort temperature of -15°C. Also here down is the best for this climate, the risk of getting wet is rather small. The little bit of condensed humidity can easily be dried during the day.
We used a gas stove to prepare food during our tent overnight stays. Gas cartridges with screw mount, containing altitude-suited butane/propane mixture were available in the supermarket in the shopping mall in Calama. We had bought four cartridges, but in the end we used only a bit more than one.
An old avalanche shovel (made of metal) was useful to level the tent sites. And, you feel better on dirt roads in the desert if you have at least a tool to dig the car out of the sand, if necessary.

Weather at the mountains

In south winter, it is the dry perion in this region. There is hardly and precipitation. Nights are cold at Salar de Atacama kalt (a bit above freezing), at 4000 m it cools down to -10° to -15°C. During the day it is sunny and rather warm; afternoon temperatures rise about 25 to 30°C above the morning temperature. At high altitude a strong wind often is annoying, but its strength is different from day to day.
In south summer, the region has the so-called "Invierno Bolviano" or "Invierno del Altiplano"; this is a kind of climate inversion: The atmosphere is more active, cloud formation stronger and therefore there is more pecipitation. Temperatures are not much higher than in south winter, therefore from January to March one must expect snow in the puna. For activities above 4000 m the weather is uncomfortable in this period.
The day length does not very much in this tropical regio. In south winter (August) we had 11 hours day, 13 hours night. Dawn and dusk are very short.

Flights, car rental, hotels, restaurants

Internationaler flight

The internationalen flights were booked at Even the cancellation (by the airline) of the booked flight Madrid-Frankfurt could be compensated without additional cost by changing the destination to Munich.

Domestic flight

We booked the flight Santiago - Calama - Santiago directly at Sky Airline and paid it by Paypal. It was somewhat confusing to find the best rate.

Car rental

Our rental car was a Toyota 4 Runner with 4-wheel drive and automatic gear, booked at Europcar, pick-up at Calama airport. The cost for 22 days was about 2000 Euros. The car was in good state and reliable. We did not dare extremely steep and rought tracks - for those, a real jeep with a short wheel base and more ground clearance would be better. But we wouldn't have been able to put all our baggage into a jeep. The gas consumption (super 95) was 13 l/100 km (i.e. 7.7 km per liter), surprisingly good considering that we used many unpaved roads and were most of the time above 4000 meters altitude where oxygenation for humans and machines becomes rather scarce.

Hotels and overnight stays

We booked in advance the accomodation in Calama (for the arrival days) and in Santiago (for the departure). Everything else was looked for and found at short term.
List of the locations where we stayed the night:
Night to..
TypeLocationHeight (m)Cost
05.08.HostalHostal Doña Sixta, Calama2250$72000 for 2 two-bed rooms
06.08.HostalHostal Doña Sixta, Calama2250$72000 for 2 two-bed rooms
07.08.HostalResidencial Chiloe, San Pedro de Atacama2400$60000 for a 4-bed room
08.08.HostalResidencial Chiloe, San Pedro de Atacama2400$60000 for a 4-bed room
09.08.Tentabove Baños de Puritama3650-
10.08.Tentwest of Láscar3900-
11.08.HostalResidencial Chiloe, San Pedro de Atacama2400$60000 for a 4-bed room
12.08.ZeltGeysers del Tatio4300-
13.08.Zeltsulfur mine near Cerro Colorado4550-
14.08.Zeltsulfur mine near Cerro Colorado4550-
15.08.HostalResidencial Chiloe, San Pedro de Atacama2400$50000 for a 4-bed room without private bath
16.08.HostalResidencial Chiloe, San Pedro de Atacama2400$50000 for a 4-bed room without private bath
17.08.Tentcamp 1 Acamarachi
base camp Acamarachi
18.08.Tentbase camp Acamarachi4580
19. - 23.08.HostalResidencial Chiloe, San Pedro de Atacama2400$60000 per night for a 4-bed room
24. - 26.08.HostalHotel del Valle, Calama2250$30000 per night for each room, one 3- and one 2-bed room
27.08.HostalHostal Americano, Santiago500$58000 in total for one 3- and one 2-bed room
without private bath
It is allowed to pitch the tent anywhere in the landscape. (In case of the site at the Tatio geysers we had asked someone who apparently did some control of the facilities in the evening.) It is more difficult to find suitable places at all, epecially with a good wind shelter. Apart from the locations which are routinely offered by the agencies in San Pedro (Tatio, Valle de la Luna, Cerro Toco), we didn't meet anybody for days. Not during the day, and not at our campsites. This is a little astonishing, since in preparation for a higher mountain you should acclimatize a bit, which is not possible at the altitude of San Pedro.

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Last updated November 04, 2016 by Hartmut Bielefeldt

The information on this page is up to date for August 2016.