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.
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.
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.
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.
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.