A Day Trip up Paso San Francisco

We are wending our way south in Argentina, in no particular hurry and with no particular plan, except to reach Santiago again before our friend from Australia arrives on July 20. Our intention is to follow Ruta 40, but we are constantly taking detours one way or the other.

Paso San Francisco: coming down the Quebrada Las Angosturas

Paso San Francisco: coming down the Quebrada Las Angosturas

Recently we had stopped in the small town of Hualfin at a service station to fill our water tank and have lunch. We were approached by a couple of friendly Argentinian men who wanted to know where we were from, where we had been and where we were going. When we told them we were driving south, they strongly suggested we should drive up towards the Paso San Francisco because it is so beautiful. This wasn’t the first time we had heard this – we had thought to try to cross that particular pass from Chile when we were thwarted in our attempt to cross Paso Agua Negra by the floods at that time. Unfortunately, the same rain had almost destroyed the area around the approach to Paso San Francisco on the Chilean side.

After our visit to the Shincal Inca Ruins we decided to take the detour so we could drive up towards the pass. We left a little later than was sensible, but were on our way from Fiambalá soon after 12.30pm. From there to Paso San Francisco is 203 kilometres, reaching an altitude of just over 4700 metres. We didn’t plan to drive the whole way.

The day was clear and the sky a brilliant blue. There were some fluffy clouds about that just added to the beauty as they came and went in the unique shapes that we have often seen in Argentina. Later in the day we were astonished to see rainbow edging along the clouds. We had never seen this before, and it was more apparent with sunglasses on than off. We continued to see this phenomenon for the next few days, late in the afternoon. It must be something to do with the position of the sun at this time of the year and at that particular time of day.

As expected, the road goes up and up and up… Initially it is a relatively gradual climb along gently curving roads. The mountains are impressive with markings showing the folding and faulting of millennia. There are layers studded with different coloured pebbles; mountains that look just like marbled paper; mountains that seem to be ‘falling apart at the seams’; and a dry riverbed with pebbles of all sizes and most colours. We also passed a few buildings made out of the materials at hand, but they mostly looked abandoned.

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: amazing multi-coloured and layered rocks

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: amazing multi-coloured and layered rocks

After around 40 kilometres we entered Quebrada Las Angosturas – a narrow gorge along a serpentine winding road. Around each bend a new vista of amazing mountain structures and colours came into view. In the light that day, the red seemed even more vibrant than the red mountains we have seen before. Stunning! The road rises sharply through this part and we reached 3000m in no time.

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: approaching the Quebrada Las Angosturas

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: approaching the Quebrada Las Angosturas

From there we were on a plateau of sorts: the road was still rising but very gently. The terrain included salt flats and lagoons, some vegetation and mountains whose variety of colours and shapes kept us awestruck. In between, we were also pleased to spot small herds of vicuñas, and also a very few flamingos.

Eventually we came high enough to begin to see the snowy peaks of mountains over 6000m, above the range to the west. The further we drove the more of them we saw. The temptation to keep going was strong, but it was just after 5pm, we had reached an altitude of just under 4000m, and we were keen to sleep much lower than that. It was time to turn around.

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: this is the puna (high plateau at over 3000m) in all its glory

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: this is the puna (high plateau at over 3000m) in all its glory

We had driven and stopped a lot, through amazing and changing scenery. It had taken us almost 5 hours to travel 160Km – now we had less than 2 hours until full dark to get down. On the way up we had noted possible sleeping places and we were now aiming for the closest one, 120Km down. We arrived just as it was getting dark and slept at 2600m. It had been a long day and we were both exhausted, but it was certainly worth it.

The road from Fiambalá to Paso San Francisco is almost perfect – wide, paved and marked with lines. We saw 4 cars on our whole drive! We also saw a single man on horseback, and a few horses, sheep and goats that might indicate some inhabitants. We did pass a huge tourist complex that looked new and unused – but there was certainly nobody there at that time. It makes you wonder why such a road is constructed.

The next day we headed back down towards Fiambalá and stopped 10 Km before the town in the middle of a plain, or maybe it’s a riverbed. The ground was covered with multi-coloured pebbles and also dotted with green shrubs and golden clumps of grass. In the distance we could see the sand dunes that this area is also famous for. We needed to rest a bit before deciding where to go next.

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: the wide valley west of Fiambalá is covered with rocks and pebbles in a multitude of colours. In the background you can see the sand dunes.

Paso San Francisco, Argentina: the wide valley west of Fiambalá is covered with rocks and pebbles in a multitude of colours. In the background you can see the sand dunes.

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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16 Responses

  1. I love how you take your time and are able to listen to locals about great places to visit. Paso San Francisco — and the journey to it — is breathtaking!!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Marilyn – it’s a pleasure to share these experiences. Paso San Francisco was definitely a worthwhile detour.

  2. I’m always amazed at the beautiful landscapes you photograph and how they convey such open space.

  3. Josie says:

    Hi Yasha,
    This visual: “Mountains breaking apart at the seams.” You have described this so beautifully. And I understand the joy of seeing flamingos. We saw a huge flock stopped at a small watering hole while on a trip to Bilbao, Spain. I was so excited I couldn’t even speak and just waved my arms like a lunatic. They’re so huge!
    Anyway Yasha, I love the surreal landscape and lonely-yet-gorgeous vistas you experienced.
    Regards,
    Josie

    • Yasha says:

      Thank you Josie – I really appreciate your comments. Animals and birds in the wild always add a dimension to the total experience.

  4. Wow! Stunning scenery and jaw dropping vistas! Even with the strong urging of the locals I imagine that you were amazed at the landscape as you drove towards Paso San Francisco. I love travel days that turn out to be ever so much more than you envision and give you the feeling that YOU’VE discovered something totally unique. I can’t imagine why the place doesn’t have more tourists journeying to and through it …

    • Yasha says:

      Well, I do know why not many travel through it – the road up to the pass on the Argentinian side is a lovely paved road and quite easy to drive but on the Chilean side it is all unpaved and difficult to travel, and in much worse condition since the devastating floods earlier this in Chile. So it is not an attractive crossing for many travellers. And I suppose a lot of people don’t like to take detours to just travel to it. But we didn’t mind – it made it seem like it was there just for us.
      And, yes, the scenery did provoke a lot of oohs and aahs from both of us!

  5. Isn’t it nice to have to schedule and be able to appreciate places like Paso San Francisco. The colours and landscape are just breathtaking.

    • Yasha says:

      Hi Nat, I’m pretty sure you meant ‘nice NOT to have to schedule’ and I couldn’t agree with you more. We seem to make more detours than sticking to original plans lately. But, I’ve heard good advice on planning – “Plans are made to be changed” or “Man plans and God laughs”. So, yes, flexibility is a wonderful thing when it brings us to places like this one.

  6. Flamingos! Now that is something I never would have expected! Beautiful scenery, particularly the multi-colored rocks.

    • Yasha says:

      Anywhere there is a ‘salar’ (shallow salt lake) in this part of the world, you can find flamingos! I never get tired of the multi-coloured mountains and the rocks here are truly gorgeous.

  7. It seems that you made the right decision to head to Paso San Francisco. What an interesting road trip. I love being on the road when you have the time to go where you’d like to and where those you meet on the road suggest you go!

  8. That is an amazing road trip, with some very spectacular and unique scenery. I am enjoying your travels

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Paula, we were so thankful we followed the suggestion and took this detour. The scenery is varied and all amazing.

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