Taking the four-wheeler to the prettiest mountains of the Atacama desert
Starting from San Pedro de Atacama, a narrow runway, partly only to be mastered with an all-wheel drive vehicle, leads to the far north. High north has a double meaning here, so it leads not only along the Bolivian border up to the northern border triangle with Peru, but really also very high, in places about 5000 m. The scenic uniqueness of the volcanic chain with the partly still active volcanoes, the richness of animals and the variety of hiking tours and above all mountain possibilities are definitely worth to make your own trip out of it. With a little more time even a round trip with return journey on the Bolivian side. But now slowly, everything in sequence. We start in San Pedro.
I’m not sure I’ll find the right words for my enthusiasm for this track. I’m just a nature lover, I like hiking, but I’m far from being a journalist. Despite the strains I have driven this route several times and it is and remains for me the most beautiful thing Northern Chile has to offer.
Ideally, the tour should be done with an all-wheel camper, alternatively with an all-wheel vehicle and camping equipment. The most common picks are pick up´s, but the only disadvantage is that the luggage is completely stowed away. It is essential to bring a canvas cover and in any case 1-2 spare canisters with fuel. Normally you can buy fuel on the black market in Colchane, but this is the only possibility. There are several accommodations on the way, one could even do the whole distance without a tent, but then it is not so flexible. To be on the safe side I would always carry a tent and a sleeping bag.
We start in San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is not now the place where I want to live, it is already very touristy. The rush also has its reasons, the surroundings are fantastic with a wide range of excursions, hikes and mountain tours. The place itself is only at 2400 m and offers itself to adapt to the height of the Andean trip.
From San Pedro, we drive up the slope towards Geysire from El Tatio. On the way, there is a nice hiking possibility along the cactus valley of the Guatin gorge up to the hot springs of Puritama. In El Tatio there has been a hostel for several years. In the closer surroundings there are many tour possibilities, as the ascent to the Cordon del Tatio, the volcano Soquete or a simple hike to the Geysir blanco. Before El Tatio the road branches off and brings us via the Indian village Caspana to Chiu Chiu. Here there are restaurants as well as accommodation.
On an asphalted road we enjoy the landscape high to Ollagüe at the Bolivian border, also with a good tourist information. Now it gets adventurous and not only because of the road. Outside of Ollagüe there is the police control. Actually, one needs a permission of the customs office for the journey, this must be shown here. Unfortunately we had forgotten to stop and nobody was interested. To be on the safe side you should ask the car rental how it is handled at the moment. The road leads northwards to Miene Collahuasi, on the way there is an interesting place. We cross a small Quebrada on a bridge, but a former railway bridge. This is the time when you could regret not having taken out a comprehensive insurance because of miserliness. From Collhuasi an access road brings us to the volcano Irruputunco. Also non experienced climbers should not miss this tour. The very easy ascent leads to the crater, which is covered by tons of bright yellow sulphur rock.
The mine has a great advantage, it leads up an asphalt road from Iquique via Pozo Almonte. Here you can stop your tour, organize fuel, apply for customs papers or start your tour here.
Passing the salt pan of Huasco, we otherwise leave the asphalt road. Now the road goes up to the 5000 m border at the pass Picavilque. Soon after, there is a nice hike at the foot of the volcano Toroni. Who searches an accommodation here must go further into the really pretty place Cariquima. From Cariquima, one can reach the border village Colchane via the really great salt pan Coipasa. In Coipasa, however, many vehicles are illegally smuggled to Bolivia. Better to ask Colchane how the situation is at the moment, maybe hire a local guide. This route should only be done with a full tank, good planning, maps and GPS.
Colchane offers us a lot, some accommodations, restaurants, an asphalt road to Iquique and black market fuel. For many the round trip starts here by starting in Iquique, spending the night in Colchane and driving to Putre in one day. But the landscape is so beautiful on this route that it is worth spending more time.
A day trip to the Hot Springs of Puchuldiza with a hike along the Cerro Blanco is worthwhile. Otherwise it goes further north, past Enquelga and above all the beautiful church of Isluga. In Isluga there is probably an easy place to sleep and above all a guide to climb the volcano Isluga with its mighty crater.
After all we have seen before, we may not believe it, but the most beautiful part is still ahead of us. The road leads up to 5000 m again with the possibility to hike the easy Cerro Colorado. Shortly after the pass we can already see the white shining salt pan Surire. It is very worthwhile to circle these with all-wheel drive on partly sandy road. We pass the beautiful thermal baths of Polloquere and another police station where we have to show our papers. This is also the area with the most, Vizcachas, Flamingos or Vicunas. It is fantastically beautiful. The next place is Guallatire, with a beautiful clay church at the foot of the smoking volcano Guallatire. For a 6000m it is easy to climb. Nearby is another worthwhile mountain destination, the Acotango. The journey is coming to an end, we reach the Andes pass Tambo Quemado with view to the highest mountain of Bolivia and the twin volcanoes Parinacota and Pomerape. Small hikes lead us in the surroundings of the Lago Chungaras, sometimes the most beautiful area of Chile, to the Bofedales of Ungallire or the panoramic Guane Guane. From now on it goes downhill to the small village Putre, with its great location, restaurants and accommodations it is a nice place to end or start this huge journey. Here a last tour on the Pitacane with its view into the Llutacanyon should not be missed.