With an Argentina Chile road trip should begin for us the adventure. For the start of our 111 day long term Latin America trip, we planned a road trip through one of the most inhospitable areas of this earth in Argentina and Chile. On our Argentina Chile round trip we went from the Atacama Desert in Chile, to the north of Argentina in the Puna de Atacama, where we saw salt lakes, canyons, crazy rock formations, lagoons and mountains in all colors of the rainbow.
We chose the Puna de Atacama for our Argentina Chile road trip because it is in stark contrast to the other countries (Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala) we still want to visit on our long term trip through South and Central America. Even though there is a surprising amount of green in the area around Salta (Argentina), most of the route is characterized by the colors reddish brown or variegated (-> the mountains), white (-> the salt on mountains or the earth) and brown (-> earth and rivers).
The tremendous altitude in this region is also a real highlight (haha… get the joke?). On our route through Chile & Argentina we alternated between up to 5000 m altitude (Chile/Argentina border crossing) and just under 1000 m altitude (Salta region). This not only demands a lot from the rental car, but also from the person. But thank God we had no problems with altitude sickness, because symptoms like nausea, headaches and loss of appetite are not uncommon when traveling to these regions of the world.
Likewise, the large temperature differences between day and night are very debilitating. Maximum temperatures can reach 20 degrees at altitudes around 4000 meters. At night (and especially in the morning hours), however, there can be severe sub-zero temperatures. The cold sets in right at the setting of the sun. And that abruptly! In the lower elevations south of Salta in Argentina, it can be as hot as 30 degrees during the day. In the evening it is still very pleasant there. It only gets really cold (below +10 degrees) at night or in the morning. It becomes pleasantly warm only from about 10 o’clock. Another reason for us to make a round trip to this remote region of Chile and Argentina was that we love the feeling of being on our own in the history of the world.
When you can do what you want. Stop, wander around, take pictures, drive on, stop again as we please. Also, we totally like to leave the beaten tourist paths and find our own ways. All this is not possible with a guided tour. Although this also offers other advantages. In the end, of course, everyone must decide for themselves. But now to the organization and the travelogue of our road trip through the northern Chile and Argentina:
We are Sabrina and Andreas, two adventurous travelers who never miss an opportunity to discover the world. Whether by plane to distant countries or with our campervan Bruno, we just love to travel. We hope to give you helpful tips for your next trip on our blog.
Sabrina & Andreas Globetrotters, Travelers, Adventurers
Road Trip Argentina Chile – Our Rental Car
Since we didn’t want to spend most of the nights in the Puna de Atacama in hotels, we decided to rent a campervan. In our case, an off-road capable SUV with a roof tent. So we could pitch our tent where we wanted it and could make us with our small camping stove in the middle of nature what tasty to eat. Simply fantastic!
With a caravan or motorhome you can drive large parts of this route of course. Our choice in the search for a rental car provider for the Atacama Desert fell on the company Wicked Camper. This already exists in the USA and Australia and for some years also in Chile. Wicked offers small campervans, but also large all-terrain four-wheel drive vehicles. Mostly with gaudy and eye-catching designs. The target group is therefore rather younger people, which one would not believe at first because of the relatively high prices.
But most things in Chile are expensive anyway. The standard rental cars at Wicked are small minivans, which are rather less suitable for rugged terrain as we would find them on our round trip. So for a little more money, we took an all-terrain, four-wheel drive vehicle where we could be sure our car wouldn’t break down in the gnarly road conditions of Argentina’s wasteland.
Another great advantage with Wicked is also that one-way rentals don’t cost as much as most other car rental companies. A one-way rental was not an option for our route, but it is good to know that it would have been quite inexpensive.
Advantage of a campervan over a normal rental car
With a normal rental car I mean a car that is not four-wheel drive. Here in the area, these are usually larger off-road vehicles, e.g. in the form of a Toyota pickup. A normal rental car, as you would rent it in Europe, is also available here, but we would only recommend it if you really only drive on paved roads (e.g. between Salta and Cafayate). Otherwise, such cars are not up to the road conditions. At least the roads in this region are paved.
The advantage of a campervan is that you can sleep in it or on it. So on a mattress in the car or in a roof tent. So you can camp with it relatively easily wild. When and where you want. And that is allowed everywhere in Chile and Argentina, except on private property of course. So not only do you save money compared to staying in a hotel, but you can also be sure of unique experiences in nature. In areas where it gets very cold at night, it is of course less pleasant to spend the night in a tent or even in a car. Maybe we are just not hardy enough, but at over 3500 m above sea level it is very easy to get below zero degrees at night.
And the strong wind does the rest. For such cases, we can resort to hostels (hospedajes), which can be found almost everywhere. There are enough hotels in the big cities like San Pedro de Atacama, Salta and Cafayate. But also in the lonely areas of the Puna de Atacama there are a few accommodations where you can take refuge from the cold at night. The prices for simple accommodations (which you can’t find on the internet) are about 15-25 Euro for a double room. If you want more comfort, you have to invest at least 50 euros per night.
Argentina Chile – The costs of our road trip
The costs of our round trip through Chile and Argentina are divided as follows:
- Rental car
- Entrance fees
The cost of the rental car
We booked our campervan with Wicked. This is a very well known provider and despite the high prices, still the cheapest among the expensive ones. Especially if you consider a one-way rental. For the campervan, we deliberately did not take the smallest variant, because we wanted a somewhat more stable vehicle with all-wheel drive and enough space for our stuff. Together with the insurance and the costs for the transfer to Argentina, we are at just under 100 euros per day (about 1500 euros for 15 days).
The car consumes an insane 12 liters per 100 km, which at gas prices of about 1 euro per liter gave us a total price for gasoline of just under 250 euros for 2409 kilometers driven.
We were very rarely to be found in restaurants, but mostly cooked for ourselves on our small camping stove. We took a lot of things with us from Germany (e.g. ready-made powder for falafel and vegetable burgers, powdered drinks, noodles, etc.), but most of it we bought locally (e.g. water, bread, eggs, fruit, vegetables, etc.) Together with the food we brought from Germany, we spent 283 Euros on food, water and restaurant visits.
In the high altitudes of the Argentine Andes, we actually stayed in lodgings throughout, as it quickly gets well below 0 degrees at night there. For our 9 nights in Argentina and the first two nights in Chile we spent a total of 210,55 Euro. The accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama was the most expensive with just under 35 euros.
Many national parks or places of interest charge entrance fees, even many lagoons cannot be visited for free, although you are not offered much more there than the location itself. Particularly expensive are the Tatio Geysers north of San Pedro de Atacama and the Laguna Piedra in the south, each costing 10,000 CLP (just under 13 euros) per person. In total, entrance fees burdened our travel budget with 37 euros.
Our itinerary through Chile and Argentina
Our itinerary through Chile and Argentina took us clockwise through the two Andean countries(and also through the Puna de Atacama) and can be roughly divided into the following stops:
- San Pedro de Atacama
- Sico Pass (border crossing Argentina)
- San Antonio de los Cobres
- El Penon
- Antofagasta de la Sierra
- Tolar Grande
- Paso Jama (border crossing Chile)
- San Pedro de Atacama
Day 1 – First night in the cold
On the first day we picked up our car at Wicked Camper in San Pedro de Atacama and first got a detailed introduction to the car and how to use the roof tent. Also the best sights in the Atacama region were explained with the help of a map. Unfortunately, there was no such map for Argentina. But we had already noted the biggest highlights before the trip in our maps.me app.
After we had signed all the papers and we could leave the yard with the car, we first went for gas and shopping. Some fruit, vegetables, bread and several canisters of drinking water were on our list. Once that was done, we headed south. We didn’t have a fixed destination, because we didn’t know in advance how long it would take to pick up the car and all the organizational hoopla.
But we wanted to see the lagoons Miscanti and Miniques, which are about 2.5 h south of San Pedro de Atacama. We thought at first that we could even spend the night there, but didn’t know that the area around the lagoon is a national park and therefore costs entrance fee and of course camping is prohibited.
Lagoons Miscanti and Miniques
Since the lagoons are located at an altitude of over 4000 meters, our little truck had to struggle up the mountains. We were at 16:30 at the entrance gate and were surprised when the nice woman told us that we had only 30 minutes until the park would close. On the Internet we had read about opening hours until 6 pm. But no matter.
Now it was called no time to fritter away, but purely in the park and look at the lagoons. The two lagoons are also very close to each other and since you can drive everything by car, both are good to do in half an hour. The lagoons are very idyllic in a small depression in front of an enormous mountain panorama. After we had marveled and photographed enough, we left the park and looked for a place to pitch our tent. Since we still had the rule from the Wicked staff in our ears not to camp above 3500 meters, otherwise the car might not start, we drove back a bit towards the last town.
At about 3600 meters we found a small side road off the main road, where we set up our roof tent with a brilliant 360° panorama, but unfortunately without wind protection. We prepared our dinner while admiring the surrounding landscapes before hunkering down in our tent. Unfortunately, the first night was not as pleasant as we had imagined. The car was a bit slanted, so we couldn’t lie straight on our 5 cm mattress either. In addition, it became sensitively cold at night (below 0 degrees were reached) and the wind rocked the tent all the time sensitively back and forth.
Let’s put it this way, it was not a nice night. We both woke up several times and were quite cold. Shortly after 6 o’clock we could not sleep any longer (it had already become light) and decided to dismantle the tent, to drive further in the direction of the Argentine border and to have breakfast only when it had become a little warmer.
Day 2 – Border crossing and overnight stay in Salta
After about 2 hours of driving, we finally reached the border with Argentina, Paso Sico, on our road trip. We were a bit confused at first, because just before the border between Chile and Argentina there is a police post with a big stop sign and all the official hoopla. We thought that we would do the border formalities here. But the policeman just sent us on with a few hand gestures. After a few kilometers we then reached the actual national border and except for the fact that here suddenly the asphalt road changed into a gravel road, nothing happened here at all. We were a bit worried(border overlooked? no stamp in the passport? illegal in the country? Exit impossible!), but after about 20 minutes on Argentine moguls we arrived at the actual border post. And there the exit/entry marathon started.
The entry to Argentina
We entered the building and found no one at first. After a short but loud“hola?” an official came and whispered to us that he would get the necessary colleagues.
In the border building there were 4 counters, which you had to go through one after the other. Altogether 4 border officials had to look through our papers, enter them into the computer, stamp them and pass them on to the next counter. That took quite a while. All in all we spent about 45 min in the freezing cold building, although nobody but us wanted to cross the border here.
The whole procedure was distributed over the 4 counters as follows:
Border Crossing Chile->Argentina
Exit from Chile. Here the entry papers to Chile (from the airport in Santiago) were checked and our passport was stamped.
Entry into Argentina. Here the appropriate formalities for the entry were done and we got a new stamp in the passport.
Here the entry papers of our car were checked (we had let the car rental company get them for a fee). This took again a little longer, because the official apparently got a little confused with the data.
Here everything was checked again for correctness and we were waved through and could finally enter the country. By the way, we were not asked for any food or other things we wanted to bring in. So everything was without any problems, even though it was a long process.
Shortly after crossing the border, it had become warmer by now, we stopped for breakfast overlooking a small salar. To refuel and buy food, our itinerary then took us on to the next town, San Antonio del Cobres. This is a small (former) mining town with lots of dust and far less charm. When the mines in the surrounding area and the associated railroad were still in operation, life must have been raging here. But since the shutdown, it is apparently much quieter here. For the passage and for refueling, the place is very well suited, but more time you do not need to spend here in our opinion. In San Antonio we also had to get some cash, then we went to a small restaurant, ate a little tasty pizza and used the internet there to let home know where we were and to plan the following days. We changed our previously made plans and decided to drive through to Salta the same day and sleep in a hotel there. The last, very cold night was still too much in our bones. So we drove on and arrived after another 2 hours in the provincial capital Salta. The drive was once again more than spectacular. To the left and right of the road, colorful mountains gradually appeared. We drove further and further down (Salta is only at just over 1000 meters altitude), it became really cloudy and it even started to rain. Wow, we hadn’t experienced anything like that in over a week. But the climate change did our bodies a lot of good. Finally we could breathe easy again. After a short internet research in a café we booked ourselves a nice hotel and spent a relaxing evening there with a warm shower and a big soft bed.
Day 3 + 4 – Quebreda de las Conchas
The next morning we visited the local mountain of Salta, the San Bernado. You can either take a cable car to the top or drive your car, completely free of charge, to the very top. On the serpentines that lead you to the top, you meet a lot of athletes, joggers and walkers, who probably use the kilometer-long way up the hill for their early morning exercise. The 360° view from the top shows you the huge dimensions of this big city, which for us was a stark contrast to the villages with a maximum of three streets that we have passed so far.
We don’t stay up there for long, but continue on our travel route through Argentina towards Quebreda de las Conchas, the dream road between Salta and Cafayate. What we have experienced in the next 2 days, you can read here in a separate article:
Day 5 – Hike to the Rio Colorado
After arriving in Cafayate, we browsed through the guidebook to see what else we could do with the day we had started. We came across the really wonderful hike to the Rio Colorado, which we described in a separate article.
Day 6 – Car repair
The sixth day of our round trip through Chile and Argentina we spent unscheduled also in Cafayate, because we were unsure because of the upcoming offroad passages in the Puna, whether we would manage these only with two-wheel drive. We had wanted to try – much too late of course – the four-wheel drive, unfortunately in vain. The car drove normally, but we could not hope for the salutary powers of the 4×4 drive.
So early in the morning we called Wicked Camper Roadside Assistance and described the problem. After some back and forth, how we could switch on the 4×4 alternatively(short press, long press, reverse while pressing etc.) the lady on the phone realized that the 4×4 drive was really broken. She looked for us a workshop in the vicinity out to which we should drive. No sooner said than done.
The residential area on the outskirts of Cafayate, where the workshop should be located, did not look like a garage at all. After asking several times in the neighborhood, we were sent to a normal house. We rang the bell and tried to explain to the friendly lady that our car needed help. She just said that her son, the mechanic, would have to come. That would take about 20 minutes. So we used the time to withdraw some money from the bank.
Withdrawing money in Cafayate
This is always a bit difficult in Argentina, but especially in Cafayate. There are 2 banks in the city, one of which had no more cash at all and the other for it a huge queue in front of the door. We stood in line for about half an hour until it was our turn, and in that time the number of ATMs in the bank that were still spitting out money dropped from 4 to just one. I was already worried that we wouldn’ t be able to get any more cash, which would be bad since most things, like the gas station or our garage, can only be paid for with cash.
But we were still able to withdraw enough bills and then drove back to the workshop. There the mechanic looked at the car for about 1 hour and then just said that it was an electronic problem and that we should go to another workshop, which would not open until 4 pm (thanks to the siesta). The meantime we spent with souvenir shopping and strolling in the city.
Cafayate is really great for that. The city manages to create a great mix of tourism and originality without being too hectic or too extinct. We felt very comfortable in the 3 days and it has become our favorite city on our round trip through Chile and Argentina.
The final repair attempt
When we arrived at the other workshop shortly after 4pm, a long marathon started: screwing around on the car, test drives, wild translations with Google Transl ate and phone calls with Wicked Roadside Assistance, the Wicked mechanic and the mechanics on site. Long story short, the mechanics failed to solve the problem, saying it was probably a “mechanical problem”. Whatever that means. However, we were assured by the mechanics on site and by Wicked on the phone that our route could be managed without four-wheel drive and that they would help us in any case.
Well, whether that is true. We then got the promise that we could keep the car for another day free of charge. Well, after all! Overall, we must say that we are really very satisfied with Wicked Camper. What concerns the handling of the rental in advance as well as the communication in case of problems while you are on the road. Whereby some problems, such as a broken four-wheel drive, of course should not occur in the first place.
Day 7 – Drive to El Penon
The seventh day of our Argentina Chile itinerary was supposed to be another driving day for us. We had to do some distance to catch up after our extra day in Cafayate and get to the Puna de Atacama. So after breakfast we quickly went to the bakery, tried to pick up some more money and fill up our two gas cans we got from the mechanic.
I write deliberately tried, because both unfortunately did not work. The bank still had no money and the gas station attendant unfortunately did not want to fill our canisters. His explanation mumbled in Spanish I unfortunately did not understand. So we had to fill our emergency canisters just at another gas station on the way. The RN40 between Cafayate and Hualfin is much flatter and wider than the RN68 between Cafayate and Salta. It is in large parts a road across a wide, flat steppe fringed by high mountain ranges. It is covered with sand and patches of pale green shrubs, from which a single tree emerges from time to time. If you stop here, the dead silence is interrupted only by the occasionalsnorting of donkeys or rattling sounds from the bushes (are there actually rattlesnakes here? We don’t know) The roads we traverse on our day of driving are often miles of dead-straight roads that seem to stretch to the horizon. Our understanding of vastness and distance is recalibrated here. Every now and then a “stinky finger” cactus reaches out of the earth here. By the way, we call it that way because this kind of cactus has several “fingers” of which one is always longer than the others and thus the cactus seems to stretch its middle finger upwards 😀 On the way we pass the town of Santa Maria, which is a bit bigger than Cafayate, but completely untouristy and also doesn’t have such a nice atmosphere. On the other hand, it’s a good place to fill up your food supplies, refuel (even gas cans are filled here at the local Perisol gas station) and withdraw money.
Refueling again in Hualfin
On our round trip through Argentina we continue to Hualfin, where we turn again into the contemplative place and fill up at the top modern gas station (which, by the way, like at most gas stations, is only possible with cash) and use the super clean toilet. Shortly after Hualfin the RP43 turns off to Antofagasta de la Sierra, which we want to follow today only to El Penon. We actually thought that from here on the unpaved road should start again.
But fiddlesticks, it continues nicely asphalted and there are only short pieces which are gravel road. Nevertheless, it goes from the beginning already very steeply uphill and our poor off-road vehicle has to fight properly to climb the slopes. Occasionally I even have to shift into second or even first gear, although it doesn’t look that steep to me. But the thin air, we are now again at an altitude of almost 4000 meters, probably also has its share.
The fantastic landscape begins
After about 1.5 h a continuous gravel road begins, which is relatively straight and easy to drive. There are hardly any potholes and only some small rivers have to be crossed at low speed. Who has fun at driving comes here fully at his expense. I(Andreas) enjoyed the route very much. Therefore, we generally have the division that Sabrina drives the “boring” asphalt roads and I the “exciting” gravel roads. The landscape during the trip is again extremely fantastic.
Endless expanses, many guanacos, isolated donkeys and even ostriches we have seen here. One can look here again almost up to the horizon and if one thinks the street can lead nevertheless no more further highly, then it goes after the next hill again more violently uphill. On the way we even drove past some dunes, which reach the foothills of the mountains to the road. It seemed totally crass to us to suddenly find such huge amounts of sand here in such an area. El Penon is recognizable from afar, because it seems like a green oasis in the otherwise barren steppe. Everywhere trees and many houses, several playgrounds and also some Hospedajes (hostels), so that one does not have to spend the night here in the tent.
We found our accommodation(Hospedaje Don Carmelo) in advance in the app iOverlander and were very happy with it. We paid 800 ARS (16 euros) for 2 people with breakfast. Breakfast in Argentina usually means bread, jam and coffee. We have a TV, a fan heater, an enormous amount of thick blankets and also our own bathroom in the room. What more could you want? After we have cooked something to eat on our gas stove in front of the garage, we crawl into our room and plan the next days.
Day 8 – Campo de Piedra Pomez
The eighth day of our Argentina Chile road trip was all about off-road driving. We drove from El Penon in about 1.5 h to the Campo de Piedra Pomez. Most of it is (according to the sign on the road) a “4×4 only” route. After we had tried in vain in Cafayate to have our four-wheel drive repaired, this made me a little bit nervous.
What if we get stuck somewhere? What if a sand hole could be easily overcome by four-wheel drive, and we just can’t get any further because our four-wheel drive has “a mechanical problem”? And anyway, what kind of a crass stretch will this be, if at the entrance to the road a “Touristic Check” is carried out, where normallythe entering cars are checked(but at our passage nobody was sitting in it)?
But it doesn’t help. Without trying it out, we’ll never know. So we drove off.
The route to the Piedra Pomez is, I can say after our return, very demanding. With a normal rental car I would not drive this route at all. Even if we did not have a four-wheel drive, we still had a lot of ground clearance, thick knobby tires and generally a very robust vehicle. At the beginning, the road is still quite easy to drive, also because it goes continuously downhill.
But after a while you encounter occasional sandbanks, tight blind curves and very sharp-stony ground, where normal car tires would probably have burst long ago. But in itself it was super fun to drive this route and thus it has once again proven that the way is the goal. Often a road, or let’s rather say a lane, was no longer discernible. Often the lane to be driven on was so wide that you could choose whether you wanted to drive 100 meters further to the left or to the right. More than once I checked maps.me to make sure we were still on the right route.
Since the car was rattling the whole time, not only our eggs in the cooler broke (later we had a delicious omelet), but also some of our 5l water bottles got tired of flying around in the trunk and developed discreet leaks at one point or another. After a short break, we then not only had to decant water into other containers so as not to lose it all, but also generally drove a little more leisurely.
Arrived at the unreal symmetrical rock formations of Piedra Pomez, we parked the car at the “road” edge and entered the sea of rocks that stretched out before us. From far away we could see this endless white landscape and wondered what exactly it would be. Only from close up we could see the 1 to almost 10 meter high rocks, which all seemed to be arranged in hundreds of parallel lines. Also, almost all of them were white on the outside and brown on top. A strange sight. As if someone had sculpted these rocks by hand.
Campo de Piedra Pomez: The highlight of the Puna de Atacama
We climbed some rocks and took many photos. We were also completely alone most of the time in this moon-like landscape. Also we could not get out of the amazement. After we had prepared and eaten a small lunch(the omelet) we started our way back.
We actually wanted to make a short detour to Laguna Carachi Pampa, which is located on the way back to El Penon at a junction. But after the paths on maps.me kept branching out and we didn’t know if we were still on the right path, we decided to turn back. Better safe than sorry. We didn’t want to get stuck in this lonely area.
The way to Antofagasta de la Sierra
After we were back on the “main road”, we turned off towards Antofagasta de la Sierra. The road was mostly (freshly) asphalted and thus very good to drive. In about an hour we reached the place where we wanted to spend the night. On the way we passed the volcano of the same name shortly before Antofagasta. This volcano is actually not that spectacular, but what makes it special is the sea of black lava rock that surrounds it over an area of several square kilometers.
A fantastic sight, especially from the eagle perspective of my drone. Directly behind the volcano, which by the way can also be climbed, we made another small rest at the lagoon of Antofagasta, which again has the same name. This is full of birds, reeds and even a small flamingo we saw. A real little oasis. Hard to believe that only an hour before we were in a totally lifeless place without plants, animals or water. Around 5 p.m. we arrived in the small Andean town of Antofagasta de la Sierra and went to the small hostel that Sabrina had already picked out on iOverlander. Tips for Antofagasta de la Sierra: There is a gas station, an ATM and several kiosks and restaurants to stock up on food.
Day 9 – Cono Arita and Tolar Grande
The ninth day of our Argentina Chile round trip turned out to be another exhausting day of driving. Our actual destination on this day was the Cono Arita. A pyramid-like rock in the middle of a huge salar. The drive there from Antofagasta can well be described as extremely strenuous and energy-sapping. The route is exclusively gravel road and partly so jerky and steep that we struggled in first gear up the slopes.
It was just shaking and jolting the whole time. Only a few slopes were prepared in such a way that one could drive 80 km/h there over longer distances. This, of course, only if you meticulously examine the road conditions in front of you. One overcomes also enormous height differences and this partly alternating in short distances. In order to cross the Salar de Antofalla, one drives in shortest time approx. 600 altitude meters down, in order to work oneself directly after the Salar these 600 meters again up. The Salar itself is very beautiful to look at and you also have several miradors(viewpoints) on the descent from which you become aware of the inconceivable dimensions of the Salar. After approx. 4.5 h we have (with some small breaks) on our travel route the 150 km of Antofagasta to the Cono Arita finally behind us brought. During the whole trip we met only one car.
The Salar de Arizaro
We are now on the Salar de Arizaro, the third largest salar (after the one in Uyuni, Bolivia and the one in Atacama, Chile) in the Andes. You first drive a few kilometers along the edge of the salar until you finally see the outline of Cono Aritas. During the drive you already notice the many trucks coming towards you. Accordingly, the road is better prepared here.
On the Salar, raw materials such as salt and various metals are mined – currently still on a small scale. On some sections of the Salar you can already clearly see the traces of industrial mining. Many excavators drive around on the Salar and dig up the earth. We hope that this will not increase in the coming years, so that this unique landscape will not be affected even more.
Arrived at Cono Arita
Finally arrived at the parking lot of Cono Arita, we park our car next to the only other cars and start to marvel. The stone pyramid is about 1 km away. You can’t get closer by car, but you can on foot. But we save ourselves the long walk over the razor sharp stones of the salar. You are not allowed to climb the Cono anyway.
For religious reasons, as we read. We limit ourselves to taking some photos and drone pictures. The fact that it is cloudy on this day and it has even rained a little on the route, does the pictures even good, I think. A simple blue background would not be appropriate for this rock pyramid either. The dark blue cloud background makes the photos even more majestic. Actually, we wanted to continue to Caipe after the visit of Cono Arita. But we decided to skip this detour for time reasons and go directly to Tolar Grande, 1.5 h away. The street there is actually well developed because of the many trucks, nevertheless, it shakes us once again strongly through and we arrive completely finished at shortly before 18 o’clock.
Because we do not want to sleep in the roof tent because of the altitude and the associated cold at night, we look for accommodation again. But this time it is a little bit more difficult. There are some Hospedaje Familiar in the place, but most are full or simply do not open the door. Finally we found a room with a double bed for 900 ARS (about 18 Euro) for both of us. It’s not super big or mega comfortable, but at least warm at night and with a hot shower in the morning.
Day 10 – Ojos del Mar and Desierto del Diabolo
Early in the morning of Day 10, we headed out on our Argentina Chile round trip to the Ojos del Mar, located just a few miles outside of Tolar Grande. The Ojos del Mar are deep holes in a small salar that have an interesting green coloration around the edges due to bacteria. In the middle, however, they are pitch black because of the depth. Hence the name “eyes of the sea”. The colors of these eyes look most impressive in the midday sun, as this is when the sun also reaches the depth of the holes and the colors come out best. During our visit we were again completely alone, which underlines the atmosphere of such a place again especially. We took many photos and I flew around with the drone to be able to look at the Ojos from above. After a supervisor or would-be law enforcement officer – wherever he came from so quickly – loudly pointed out that you are not allowed to fly here with a drone, we continued our journey.
Since the roads were already in relatively good condition from Cono Arita onwards – due to the trucks passing by – the onward journey turned out to be quite easy. It was still an unpaved road, but with so few potholes and bumps that one could travel quite quickly. No comparison to the stretch between Antofagasta and Cono Arita.
Desierto del Diabolo
Our next stop was the Desierto del Diabolo. An impressive, reddish-brown clay hill scenery through which one drives for several kilometers on the way north. At first you could only guess at it from a distance, but the closer you got, the clearer it became that we would soon be driving through the reddish brown hills of the Devil’s Desert. We were very excited because we had seen photos of this desert at home, but didn’t know exactly where it was. It had only been about an hour’s drive since we left Tolar Grande, but the landscape had changed completely. Instead of gray rock, we saw only reddish-brown clay. If you take the signposted truck route instead of the car route, you drive as if through a narrow gorge in which the red hills pile up on the left and right. A very impressive spectacle. One feels like on Mars. When trying to climb one of the loamy hills I (Andreas) had my problems, because the loamy mass broke off again and again when climbing. After a few more hours over moguls we finally reached the main road that runs between Salta and the Paso de Jama (border crossing to Chile). This last stretch was therefore asphalted and thus again very easy to drive.
At the border to Chile
We had already decided in advance not to cross the border (Paso de Jama) on the same day, but to spend the night in a gas station hotel (YPF)(yes, we slept in a gas station 😀 ) and cross over to Chile the next day. The YPF hotel in Jama was not as nicely modernly equipped as we had hoped and unfortunately the windows – like actually everywhere in Argentina – had no seal, which led to the fact that the incredibly strong wind from outside penetrated through all cracks into the room. The electric heating in the room had great problems to heat up the room completely. Unfortunately, the hot shower didn’t work the next morning either, which made the overnight stay a bit unpleasant overall.
Day 11 – Border crossing and drive to San Pedro de Atacama
On day 11 of our round trip we went from Argentina to Chile again. In the morning around 9 o’clock we drove the 200 meters to the border station. There was already a long line of trucks waiting for us. We briefly considered whether we should stand in line or cheat our way past. Of course, we cheated our way past and stood right in front, but still in front of a closed barrier. We waited and waited and then heard from a truck driver that the border should open probably only at 12 o’clock.
Wow, that would be another 1.5 hours of waiting! We already adjusted to a longer time in the car rocked back and forth by the wind. After about 30 minutes, however, a border official suddenly came out of his box, filled out a piece of paper, waved at us and sent us to the next border building. That worked out great! We then went through the usual 4-counter migration madness again.
Exit from Argentina, entry Chile, check the car papers and again check all papers and check for food brought. This step was new for us as we were not asked for food when entering Argentina. The border agent even came out with us to check the car. We had to bring almost all of our fruits and Vegetables (bananas, garlic, peppers, etc.). But cheese and butter we were allowed to keep. We described the exact procedure of the border crossing in a separate article, which you can access here: Argentina Chile border crossing with rental car
After crossing the border, we screwed our way up a few hundred more meters in altitude and had an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. The weather also changed radically. It became even windier, even cloudier and it even started to snow lightly. The white spots on the left and right of the roadside were thus also no longer salt, but really snow!
We also drove very close to the border with Bolivia and could therefore almost look over into the neighboring country, only the volcanoes in between block the view. The views were thus also completely different than on the way to the Sico Pass, which we crossed during the crossing from Chile to Argentina. Upon arrival in San Pedro, we first looked for a suitable campsite in the app iOverlander. Somehow all places were not so really super. Either much too windy, or too much visible from the road. In the end, we found a place a little north of San Pedro, near a canyon and the Rio Vilama. There we had no cell phone reception, but spent a quiet night in our roof tent.
Day 12 – Tatio Geysers
On day 12 we drove on our Argentina Chile travel route to the Tatio Geysers in the north of the Atacama Desert. They are supposed to be visited at sunrise, but since we didn’t feel like getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning, we didn’t leave until 8 o’clock. The geysers were then no longer so numerous visible and powerful, but there were many fewer visitors there. You can read more about our visit to the Tatio geysers in our article on the highlights of San Pedro de Atacama, which linked here is. The rest of the day we spent in town researching important things on the internet (unfortunately we had no reception at our sleeping place) and strolling around the tourist district.
Day 13 – Rainbow Valley
The thirteenth day of our Argentina Chile road trip began wonderfully warm, sunny and not as windy as the previous days. So we spread our blankets on the sandy ground near our campsite and rested. We felt really comfortable and didn’t want to leave. We even washed first our clothes and then ourselves in the ice-cold water of the nearby Rio Vilama.
But when around noon the storm and – and since we were standing on very sandy ground – the sandstorm started again, it became very uncomfortable. So we quickly packed up our things and decided to go to the Rainbow Valley. The Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoiris) is a, about 1 h away from San Pedro, valley and can not really come up with rainbow colors, but is still a very beautiful and colorful canyon. We stayed there for about an hour and took our photos alone. There were other cars on site, but these have all stayed at the parking lot at the beginning of the gorge and are not driven through to the end like us. You can read more about this in our Atacama Highlight article:
Day 14 – Salar de Atacama and swimming in the lagoon
Day 14 of our Argentina Chile itinerary was all about the second largest salt lake in the Andes, the Salar de Atacama. We first visited the Laguna Chaxa in the middle of the Salar and then went swimming in the nearby Laguna Piedra. Yes exactly, we bathed in a lagoon in a salt lake! The salt content of the water was so high that we floated on the surface without doing anything, just as it is supposed to be in the Dead Sea.
If the water had not been so freezing cold, we would certainly have endured it longer, but so the time in the water was just enough to shoot the obligatory souvenir photos.
Day 15 – Return of the car
Day 15 was our drop off day. Our Argentina Chile round trip was over. We had to clean the car, clean, pack our things, which were scattered wildly in the car, and still had time to buy a few souvenirs in the city. We also went out for another fancy – or let’s say good and cheap – dinner. Our farewell dinner in Chile. In the evening we took a bus (Turbus, highly recommended) to Calama and flew from there via Santiago de Chile to Costa Rica, to continue our trip through Latin America.
Round Trip Argentina Chile – Conclusion and Tips
- Keep warm Take enough blankets and a sleeping bag. Especially in the high altitudes it gets sensitively cold at night. We found enough free blankets and sleeping bags at Wicked Camper. But you should not rely on them.
- Supplies Buy enough water and gas for the road. And of course stock up on food. There are kiosks in every small village with the most necessary things, but e.g. gas is not available everywhere. And you don’t want to take your food cold. You also want to be prepared for an emergency, when your car breaks down and you are on your own for some time until help arrives.
- The routes The routes are longer than you think. The app maps.me has always indicated these relatively accurately, but since most routes are really very difficult to drive, you always need more time than you thought before. Photo stops not even included.
- Apps Super helpful are the two apps iOverlander and maps.me. The latter can be used as an offline navigation app just like Google Maps. iOverlander, on the other hand, offers an almost endless list of overnight accommodations for campers and tents, as well as information on photo spots and sights. Partly also with current comments. Unfortunately, the app does not work completely offline, so you should scroll through the maps you will need later online, then they should still be available offline from the cache of the phone.
Do you have any tips for us or questions about the Argentina Chile route? Write us a comment!