On arrival at the airport Aeroparque Newberry from a domestic flight with an international connection (both from Aerolineas Argentinas), one has to ask for the transfer to the international airport Ezeiza at a very small and inconspicuous office (besides the Telecom). The transfer is done by taxi (at no cost for the passenger) and takes about half an hour.
The Argentine railroad experienced a dramatic decline. The dense railroad network that crisscrossed the country in the early 20th century is mostly falling into disrepair.
Nowadays one mostly travels by bus. Every more or less important village has a bus terminal (terminal de omnibus) where besides the ticket counters of the different bus operators one often finds a tourist information counter and shopping opportunities. Different routes are often operated by different bus companies; to connect different routes one might get reservations and tickets only for one step at a time.
In general, the buses are in good technical conditions, the depart is usually very punctual. The route from Aimogasta to Fiambalá, however, is known for delays and travelers having to stand the whole way due to overcrowded buses.
If one has big baggage one can avoid discussions about the size or weight by giving 2 or 3 pesos to the personnel.
In every town and every major village there is an official tourist information office. Unlike for example in Germany, they are often open on Sundays, too, and are usually rather competent. They try to solve any problem to the tourist's satisfaction as quick as possible (hotels, places of interest, transportation). Therefore it is a good idea to first look for "Información Turistica" soon after arriving.
Banks are sometimes open only before the siesta, 9:00 to 12:30. Not every bank changes foreign currency to pesos, or even the other way round.
The exchange rate of the Argentine Peso ($) is about 1/3 US dollar.
In Argentina people eat beef (who would have expected that...). The major appearances are bife (beef steak), bife de chorizo (rump steak), lomo / lomito (fillet steak), asado (grilled meat in general) or parillada (the extensive grill adventure with everything that one can get out of cattle and for which one should bring sufficiently time and hunger). The milanesa is a very thin schnitzel that already fills the whole plate in some restaurants. The meat is usually served with papas fritas (french fries) or ensalada mixta (salad out of tomato, onions and occasionally lettuce). Lomito or milanesa is also found in sandwiches. Beer is usually served in liter bottles (for 3-5 $), but smaller bottles also are available. Good wine is rather expensive; there are very good wines not only in Mendoza but also in La Rioja and Catamarca. People go to the restaurant for diner usually not before 9 or 10 pm.
A diner for two persons including beverages was usually around $30 to $35, lunch was $12 to $25.
For breakfast, coffee and medialunas (croissants) or facturas (sweet pastry with jam) from the bakery are usual.
We had no problems to find accomodation for 1 or 2 nights on a short term. A double room in a reasonable hotel costs about $50 to $60, in the smaller villages the prices in the hosterias were about $30. (All without breakfast.)
The supermarkets offer almost every food that is needed for a mountain trip of several days. The only thing that we didn't find was mashed potatoes with milk that can be made just with water. (That had been available in Chile in the smallest shops on the countryside, but in Argentine there is nothing.) In return, most supermarkets have entire shelves with mate tea which we don't have a real interest in.
In the afternoon, the whole country is deserted; between 12:30 and 5 pm no shop is open. In summer, this time is too hot to do any work. Between 5 and 7 pm the scene slowly comes to life again, and usually people work until 10 pm.
In Argentina Spanish is spoken; nowadays English is taught as first foreign language, but the elder generation did not learn English.
Pronunciation peculiarities are that an "s" at the end of a word is not pronounced and the most "s" inside the word are also almost completely suppressed. The "ll" is not pronounced like English "y" but more like "sh".
Traffic in Argentina is considered comparably dangerous, especially in the major cities. People seem not to need a detailed training to conduct a car, and safety belts of helmets (for motorbikes) are practically unknown. Even in pitch dark night, cars without headlight are seen in the city. At least 98% of the Argentine drivers do not at all use the indicator when turning, and the rest uses it the wrong way.
Besides, the techniques to collectively use one bicycle with 1 to 3 persons are remarkable.
Argentina's northwest consists of the provinces Jujuy, Salta, Tucumán, Catamarca and La Rioja. Strangely enough, the latter two are hardly mentioned in any guidebook, probably because they offer mainly a sparsely populated landscape. We visited the provinces Córdoba (which borders to the south east corner of the region), La Rioja and Catamarca. La Rioja has 300000 inhabitants on 90000 km2, Catamarca 330000 on 102000 km2. The population is concentrated to some larger cities; between the villages there is often 50 kilometers of "nothing".
The landscape is governed by different mountain ranges which cross the region from north to south. In the east these are the lower sierras which form the western boundary of the huge plains of the Chaco. In the west, the Chilean border follows the Andes main range. On the Argentine side of the main range there are several ranges which are almost the same height; in between there is highland, the puna. Between the sierras in the east and the first higher ranges there are plains at about 500 to 1000 m altitude where in irrigated areas e.g. wine and olives are cultivated.
The climate is dry, large parts of the north west provinces are steppe or desert. In southern summer, however, violent thuderstorms are frequent, as well as there can be bad weather situations lasting a couple of days. Above 4000 m, there can be snowfall also in summer, but the snow melts away quickly.
Córdoba is Argentina's second largest city (1.3 million inhabitants), 700 km northwest of Buenos Aires. The city was founded quite early and was Latin America's third university town (1614). The cultural attractions mostly originate from the 19th century and from the early colonial time (Jesuit college).
The city center has a erctangular design as most south american cities, making orientation easy. The Terminal de Omnibus is at the south-western edge of the center; in this area there are several relatively cheap hotels (ask the tourist info in the bus terminal or at the airport).
The cheapest way to get from the airport to the center is the bus no. 5 (stops about 5 minutes beyond the daxi drivers). It takes a little more than half an hour to Bulevar Illia three blocks from the bus terminal. $ 1.20 per person.
For the trip from the center to the airport one can use the buses of the company Ciudad de Cordoba which go for Jesús Maria. They depart once every 20 minutes at the bus terminal (buy ticket before at the counter); the bus stops close to the airport on the main road, from there it takes 10 minuted on foot to the airport. $ 1.90 per person.
Restaurants: In the center (pedestrian area) there is hardly any restaurant. There are more at the edge of the area, e.g. in the south at Bulevard Illia. The restaurant Las Tinajas is a large self-service restaurant where one can eat without a limit for $ 15 or $ 17. For a normal bife, there are also cheaper occasions in the area.
Fiambalá is the last village before Paso de San Francisco which is served by a bus connection. It is a starting point for Ojos del Salado (with border crossing) and Monte Pissis. The village is not too big and basically arranged around the plaza.
Besides the big mountains, an excursion to the Termas de Fiambalá is very recommendable: A hot spring is enlosed into natural stone basins in the shadow of the trees. The basins begin at the top with 45°C and become colder when going downwards, down to 32°C. Good to relax. Entrance fee per day $ 2; taxi from Fiambalá $ 20 (and another $ 20 back), so it may be worthwile to try share the ride.
There are (at least) three places to stay: the Residencial Municipal at the tourist information, the small hospedaje at the Museo del Hombre and the hospedaje at Reynoso's in direction towards the Termas.
The Sierra de Famatina (Cerro General Belgrano 6250 m) is the first major mountain range which one encounters coming from the east. It is situated west of Chilecito (1050 m), and it offers an enormous altitude difference on a small scale: more than 5000 meters within a distance of about 40 kilometers. We didn't visit the mountain due to lack of time, but surely it is interesting. Hardly any other 6000 m peaks is standing so isolated. But that also means that in summer it often has bad weather.
A cable car leads from Chilecito into the Sierra de Famatina, built in 1906 for ore mining in the mine La Mejicana (4600 m). It transported ore and workers over 39 kilometers in 8 sections. Unfortunately it is out of order since many years, but the first station in Chilecito is worth a visit for people interested in technical history.
La Mejicana can (e.g. for climbing Belgrano) also be reached by car, either via the agency in Chilecito (which is said to be relatively expensive) or from the village of Famatina 20 km north of Chilecito.
Cerro Bonete Chico is situated in the north of the province of La Rioja, having an altitude of 6759 m. Several kilometers further north is Cerro Bonete Grande (5943 m) close to Caldera del Inca which is a big crater lake with a diameter of 5 km - supposed to be the world's highest lake. It is unclear why the higher mountain is the "small" and the hidden, lower peak the "big one". Possibly the huge massive of the Chico appeared less high than the steeper shape of Grande. Nobody could really explain the naming.
There is a more or less reasonable road up to the salt lake Laguna Brava about 40 km south of Bonete Chico. There are daily excursions to Laguna Brava. A road project shall connect to the Chilean border at Paso Pircas Negras, some parts are already completed but others are still completely missing. One of the completed parts allow the access to Refugio Veladero northwest of Laguna Brava. From there, there is a track through sandy terrain to the base of Bonete Chico, west of the mountain. The region of the Caldera - another 15 km further north - is very remote and can be reached only with good vehicles.
The refugios in the area were built around 1875 as shelters for caravans crossing the Andes. There is about a dozen of such shelters. The Refugio del Peñón at 3600 m at the road leading to Laguna Brava is well suited for acclimatization because there is a source nearby.
Like most mountains in the Puna, Bonete Chico is technically easy, the area is very vast. The main criterion for campsites is water or snow. Our campites:
|base camp||4750 m||28°03.7952' S||68°51.9553' W||sandy, no water|
|1||5290 m||28°03,4193' S||68°48,6150' W||at a creek with lots of water|
|2||5820 m||28°02,5582' S||68°46,8647' W||no water, stony (water from snow)|
Bonete can also be climbed from any other side, but the base camps then are more difficult to reach. A base camp close to the Caldera del Inca would in principle have the advantage that one could also access Monte Pissis from there. However, both mountains are 30 km distant, which is a long way in such high altitude.
At Bonete there are not many mountaineers, one can easily be alone for one week.
Ojos del Salado (6893 m) is situated on the Chilean-Argentine border south-west of Paso de San Francisco. It is the second highest mountain of the Andes and an extinct volcano (sulfurous gases can still be smelled). Ojos del Salado is also Chile's highest mountain and it is relatively easy to reach from the international road. Therefore it is well known also to foreign mountaineers since several years, and in summer season it is climbed almost daily. The mountain has two summits of exactly the same height (Argentine and Chilean summit) which are remains of the crater rim.
Since 2004 the area around the mountain together with the hot springs at Laguna Verde is licensed to the company Aventurismo Expediciones by the Chilean government. Entering the area with the aim of climbig the mountain costs a fee of US$ 160 per person. During the season there is a "ranger" in the lower refugio; for emergencies he has radio contact to the outside world. He gives radio equipment to the mountaineers to keep contact with him in case of emergencies. There is also a toilet near the lower refugio, but that is basically all that has changed since the days of free access (when we had visited the mountain in 1994).
The camp sites are around the two huts:
|Refugio Rojas||5260 m||27°03,5572' S||68°32,8524' W||sandy, no clean water|
|Refugio Tejos||5830 m||27°05,2583' S||68°32,2908' W||water from snowfields|
The lower hut is not available for staying there (radio room and storage),
the upper hut can be used instead of a tent and thus wouldn't need to carry one's own tent up the 600 height meters. But it is not very big, therefore one would better rely on an own tent if many people are on the way.
The route is quite obvious; at about 6400 m the route traverses a snowfield, for which crampons are recommended. The final 20 meters to the summit are steep rock which doesn't offer major difficulties (II UIAA). There is a fixed rope which can be useful as a help for the balance. A harness is not necessary for people used to easy climbing.
For the Ojos del Salado (like for all mountains in the Chilean border regions) a permit is needed. It is issued by Dirección de Fronteras y Límites at no cost and can also be applied for in the internet (www.difrol.cl). In addition, the entrance fee as mentioned above must be paid on the spot to the company Aventurismo Expediciones.
The access from Chile is no problem, the permit is controlled at the customs station Maricunga. The access from Argentina, on the other hand, is a first class bureaucratic adventure. While it apparently is relatively easy to visit Laguna Verde and Refugio Rojas for one day (passport must be deposited at the carabineros station at Laguna Verde), a longer stay makes it necessary to first officially enter the country (at Maricunga, 80 kilometers west of Ojos del Salado) and drive back almost all the distance to Ojos. When leaving Chile the same procedure applies the other way round. Anyway, we will probably never know the exact meaning of the yellow copy of the light blue form...
Monte Pissis (6882 m) is situated north of Caldera del Inca, 30 km north of Cerro Bonete Chico. It is normally climbed from a base camp in the northeast; the access road is rather complicated. Considering the desert-like surroundings, it is amazing that there are large glaciers at Monte Pissis. The region's weather seems to be not always desert-like, tha high mountains seem to create thunderstorms with snowfall.
Since 1995, Monte Pissis was supposed to be the second highest peak of tha Andes because Ojos del Salado was corrected to 6864 m after a re-survey. Since this survey is apparently not reliable, Pissis is only number 3. The mountain comprises a massive of about 15 km in length, it has at least four summits of almost the same height:
Between main summit and the east summits there is a saddle of about 6500 m altitude. Also due to the large distances, it is probably quite a challenge to climb all summits on one day.
Description of the access to the base camp:
Normally one would not go to base camp in one's own car bacause it would stand there for about a week and cost the expensive rent without any use. Nevertheless I took some notes about the route, some people even go there by bicycle. In Valle de Chaschuil at La Coipa (86 km from Fiambalá) there is a sign "Refugio". Turn left here, the road is marked by two metal signs which might symbolize a half circle together. Through a small green valley (road sometimes very bad, water erodes the track) and later vast slopes a pass at 4600 m is reached; view to Cerro Bonete Chico. Down to Laguna de los Aparejos and along the Laguna to a stone which is marked "Laguna Azul 19 km". Follow this road half-right. It leads to a 4600 m high pass and then tracerses the left slopes of a valley without drain, then reaches another, 4700 m high, pass. Not the road descends to Laguna Azul (a light blue lake), turns left to another pass from which one can see the huge Laguna Verde. In several sharp bends the road leads down to the shores of Laguna Verde; the lake and its salt plains are bypassed on the left side until a sign "Monte Pissis" can be seen. Turn left here, another 17 kilometers to base camp from the sign. The whole distance from La Coipa to the base camp is about 90 km.
In 2006, for the fist time the base camp was equipped with a big tent, a radio and some food.
The site for camp 1 is quite ovious, where the glacier creek runs down into the valley. We probably hadn't found the correct place for camp 2 and were too far right. But at the altitude of 5900 m (which was told to us) there was no place for a camp; the steep slope ends above 6000 m. Beyond, there might be level spaces which can be used. Due to the bad weather we couldn't continue for another two hours and therefore immediately went to the right side where the terrain was not so steep.
The route probably follows the glacier to the saddle 1 km southeast of the main summit.
|base camp||4580 m||27°42,9046' S||68°42,9046' W||no water|
|1||5360 m||27°44,4877' S||68°45,4801' W||abundant water from the glacier creek|
|2 (?)||5930 m||27°44,5339' S||68°47,1434' W||no water, snowfields|
To travel to Pissis base camp, one has to register at the tourist information and the carabineros in Fiambalá. It was not controlled on the way and therefore probably more is a security measure for the case of accidents than a pure access control.
These are our experiences with the agencies which we employed:
Inka Ñan is the only licensed agency in Chilecito (e-mail: email@example.com). They offer several excurcions in the area (e.g. Mina la Mejicana, and shorter trips) and the region (Talampaya, Laguna Brava). We went to Laguna Brava with Inka Ñan and organized the further logistics there because Bonete was outside their program. Our impression: friendly and reliable. At least a little knowledge of Spanish language is recommendable (the boss speaks good English, the others not too much).
We organized the transport to Bonete and back with Runacay, quite spontaneously on the way to Laguna Brava. Alejandro ist very reliable and absolutely punctual, he speaks Spanish, French and a little English. Very recommendable. His wife is French, she runs the hosteria in Villa Unión. The focus is on excursions.
Jonson Hugo Reynoso is known as the specialist for the mountains in this region. We had him organize Ojos del Salado (Chilean side) and Monte Pissis for us. The driver was Cristian, the junior. Already in the 1996 edition of South American Handbook there is a hint "check state of vehicles" - but the touristically oriented client hardly can imagine what things can happen in the depths of a Mitsubishi pickup. Our car had a radiator problem in high altitude which is not really good in a desert. Such a problem easily causes delays of three or four hours. In addition, during both trips to and from Ojos our driver was seriously overtired.
During the trip to Monte Pissis the battery was empty, so the car came to a stand in the desert - the battery problem obviously not being new to Cristian.
Next morning help arrived, but still the schedule was somehow affected. On the way back, substitute driver Nestor and his assistant Luis fetched us. His car was in a much better state, and the drive over the bad road was without a hitch. On the paved road he had no hurry so we almost rolled in neutral gear 86 km down to Fiambalá; we could have easily have arrived an hour earlier in Fiambalá.
When it comes to knowing the area, Reynoso may be the competent person; reliability of transportation unfortunately is rather weak.
The information on this page was current for February 2006.
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Last updated 17 April 2006 by Hartmut Bielefeldt