Mountaineering in Chile and Bolivia
Short version of our travel report Northern Chile/Bolivia 1996
(C) Hartmut Bielefeldt 1996
|Quick overview - mountains
|Cerro de Pajonal||4930 m|
|Cerro Colorado||5748 m|
|Cerro Sairécabur||5971 m|
|Volcán Lascar West||5500 m||only to the west summit|
|Cerro de Taapacá||5775 m|
|Volcán Parinacota||6342 m|
|Cerro Huayna Potosí||6088 m|
|Nevado Illimani||6460 m|
Unfortunately, the trip that we originally had planned was cancelled ten (!)
days before departure (a German trekking agency with good reputation...).
So we need to find a good alternative...
We quickly book a flight to Santiago de Chile, and there we'll
see what one can do.
The next step is the bus to the north, to Calama. The landscape on the way
gives an intense impression of emptyness: Sometimes the smallest villages are
hundred kilometers apart.
With a rented car we visit the vast sceney and use the high altitude (3500-4500 m)
of the land around the Salar (salt lake) de Atacama for acclimatization. We climb several 5000m peaks, among them
(on the 3rd day since Calama) Cerro Sairecabur, with 5971 m the highest mountain of
this range. Two and a half days ago, we had been on 2000 m, and without the
security of the car for a possible retreat, such an altitude "acclimatization" certainly would
not have been possible.
We had the ascent of Llullaillaco a bit farther south, 6739 m high, in mind
as the highlight of this week, but without a permit the Carabineros at the station Socompa
can not let us go there. We'd need their help to find the secure way to the mountain through
the mined (!!) Chilean-Argentinean border area. Though these officers have to do their duties
correctly (refusing us the access), they are very delighted about our visit and
helpful and friendly like everybody in this country.
On the way to Socompa, 200 km of salt and desert
The road between Socompa and the Salar de Atacama touches not a single settlement
over 200 km, and one hardly sees any plant beside the road. The only traffic constists of trucks
transporting lithium and borax from the plants of the Litio Chileno Company in the center of the salar.
This enterprise is said to be the world's biggest lithium producer.
Back at the Salar, we attempt to climb the active volcano Láscar.
This fails due to "planning faults": The volcano has a height of 5675 m instead of the 5175 indicated in the map.
If I had counted the contours carefully, I could have noticed that easily. So
we reach only a secondary summit.
The next day is an excursion back to ancient times: Laguna Lejía, an icy cold lake
(very salty, therefore not frozen) situated at 4200 m altitude behind Lascar. The scenery
resembles our imagination of Earth some billion years ago: volcano cones releasing
smoke in the background, no vegetation, and some unidentified old skeletons lying on
the sand plains. What a cosy place!
Flowers at a stone-covered water pipe near volcano Láscar, Atacama.
After the "inevitable" bath in the Baños de Puritama (a "must", very nice, but
don't drive down without a 4x4 car) we give back the car in Calama. The
higher mountains of Chile's very north attracts us now, since in May we had
no chance at the really tall ones further south.
Arica, Chile's northernmost city, became Chilean in the Pacific War
in 1880. In the treaty with Peru and Bolivia the construction of a railroad
to La Paz was decided giving Bolivia a compensation for the lost land access to the
Pacific sea. We'll use this railroad later. Beforehand we visit the city (1/2 day)
and find out about the formalities for ascending the mountains in the border area
to Bolivia (1 1/2 days). Generally, for the ascent of a mountain in frontier regions
in Chile a permit (free of charge) is necessary which can be applied for at the
government of the relevant province. In case of the volcano Parinacota, this is the province
Parinacota with capital Putre. So we go there, and the capital turns out to be a quite
rural village with 1200 people. The administration people help us as they can, and the permit application and
answer goes by fax, but unfortunately the weekend happens to be in between. But that would
be very similar in so-called "civilized" countries like Germany or the U.S., if not worse.
We spend the waiting time climbing Cerro Taapaca, 5875 m, for which no permit is required.
Funny: Near the summit, we see old ski descent tracks.
Monday morning, the permit fax really has arrived. The local carabineros refer us
to the carabineros in Caquena, the village closest to the mountain.
For some hours, we try to get out of Putre by hitch-hiking, but that is not very successful
in a village at the end of a dead-end street. In the end, we take a taxi (yes there is
one) - not a cheap pleasure. However, the price is adequate to the value of the
adventure, including hub caps suddenly passing the taxi.
In Caquena, the carabinero's first question is like "Caquena? What do you want here?" Understandable, since the
usual traffic flow here is one car per week (and our taxi was now here and has filled the quota for the next days).
Having seen the permit, he becomes considerably more friendly and invites us for a coffee, until his
colleagues would come back from the patrol. We learn a lot about Chile and the Chilean point of
view of the conditions in Latin America. For the night, we get a place in the school (school is obligatory in
Chile), where the local teacher is hammering his Ph.D. thesis into a typewriter, lighted by a gas lamp.
Also here we get many interesting informations about the country and its people.
The walk towards the mountain is rather long and a bit annoying because of the dogs not giving
up to follow us.
A grazing Lama herd without any sympathy for dogs helps us getting
rid of at least one
of them. After leaving the swampy meadows around Caquena,
we see some (at a height of 4700 m) unexpectedly
magnificent trees, and beyond there the life becomes sandy.
At 5005 m we find a campsite
in black volcano sand.
Pallachata volcanoes seen from Caquena, with local wool-carriers in the foreground.
Trees and Llareta plants on the way to Parinacota, at 4700 m altitude
On the following day we tackle the mountain. We hardly get rid of our
four-legged friend, but before entering the steep icy slopes we better fix him -
despertately whining - at a rock (with enough food for the day).
The slope up to the crater edge is endless like at all volcanoes - finally when one
stands on top, one can say that it is (essentially) over. In case of Parinacota, the
way from the crater edge to the summit takes about half an hour; the crater is worth seeing:
a diameter of about 2 km with 300 m high almost vertical walls.
Parinacota in sight, now there's only sand in our way...
Having picked up our friend again, we spend another night at 5005 m and
march to Caquena in 3 1/2 hours the following day.
Thanks to the help of the carabineros and the local teacher, we soon get a lift back to Putre.
An ill lama must be brought to Putre, and on the pick-up truck there is some space for us.
Back to Arica, we take the train to Bolivia after a one-day break (the railroad was blocked).
This is quite touristic (the first time we meet several foreigners at a time) but
nevertheless very recommendable.
Very impressive is the arrival at La Paz late in
the evening where the
train follows a long curve around (and above) the city with a magnificient view on all
the lights down the center.
Train "station", somewhere in the nowhere of the Altiplano.
Street in La Paz
The next day we take a closer look at the world's highest capital (3000-4000 m):
Compared to Chile, a highly chaotic traffic, and the streets go either up or down. Flat areas are
rare, except for just the soccer stadium. Buying food becomes a huge time-consuming action, since
one as to find article by article at the stands of the market women on the streets.
The city's first supermarket has just been opened where we find at least five articles
at a time.
The world's highest capital
Our next destination is Huayna Potosí. Provided good acclimatization at the height of La Paz
(better a bit more), it is the "quickest" 6000m peak at all.
On the first day, we get a ride to Lake Zongo (4700 m) and ascend to the
camp on the glacier at 5400 m. On the second day follows the barely difficult, but
beautiful climb of the summit (6088 m) with perfect weather and in the daytime very comfortable temperatures.
The same day we go down to Lake Zongo and back to La Paz.
Huayna Potosí above Laguna Zongo.
Early morning, leaving for the summit day at Huayna Potosí.
The summit ridge of Huayna Potosí is not difficult,
but on the other hand clearly not boring.
Reed transport and sailing boat on Lake Titikaka.
Now a culture day: The inevitable excursion to Lake Titikaka (3800m)
(something one must have seen) with a visit of the reed boat island.
Since we have the tour guide practically for our own, we gain a
lot of insight to the "inofficial" side of Bolivia. For example, unlike in Chile here
school is not obligatory, and the illiteracy rate is about 40%.
Reed boat construction on Suriqui island, Lake Titikaka
The next day, another mountain has to be our victim: From La Paz we get to the mountain that
governs the city's view, Illimani. Forty kilometers as the crow flies give
four hours driving time, saying enough about the local road network quality.
From the last village we reach the first camp (4400 m) in four hours.
The second day gives thousand meters of height difference to the camp
"Nido de Cóndores" (condors' nest) on a rock pillar. For the way
to the summit (6460 m) we have a quite mediocre weather, but we can't choose it.
Despite the missing view, the summit is a good success, being not too simple from the
technical point of view.
Illimani. The way up follows the long rock ridge at the right of the image center.
Secondary summits of Illimani (ca.6000 m), seen from our way down camp at 4800 m.
At the end of our rather short visit in Bolivia we have an excursion to the
Yungas, the foothills bordering the Bolivian jungle regions.
The road that leads us there is a mountain road of unprecedented
quality: unpaved and
mostly one-track, it is digged into a slope often 60 degrees steep to vertical,
and the distance to the valley base is usually 500 to 1000 meters.
Driving on the left side is obligatory here, the driver can better see how
many millimeters of space he still has...
In Coroico, the first village in the tropical hills,
we visit a "plantation" showing all what we had expected in the tropics:
bananas, mangos, lemons, mandarin oranges (much better than those
we buy at home), coffee, and
also the famous coca plants. The latter are considerably smaller
than we had imagined.
One of the wider spots of the road to Coroico
Banana plants and the hills of Coroico
After the again adventurous drive back to La Paz (our bus driver is a bit tired now, but
fortunately we have the track at the mountain side now) we once again fail at the
tremendous food portions of Bolivian restaurants. On the following day we fly back
to Santiago de Chile and finally home to Germany.
We have completely organized this trip on our own, as a two person team - even on a shorter
term than our previous Chile trip (1994). This time we only had 8 days including booking the flight, because
our originally planned trip suddenly was cancelled. With pleasure we can give you hints to carry out your individual
trip. Possibly also the mountaineering links can be of use.
© 1997 Hartmut Bielefeldt (english version)
Last updated: March 06, 1997 (text) / November 15, 1997 (images) by Hartmut Bielefeldt
Last formal change on this page: January 28, 1998