We did this high altitude trek in Catamarca to get to El Arenal which we used as a base to climb a few mountains. It’d be a nice 6-7 day loop to hike anyway even if you don’t want to go climbing, and you can find water every day unlike in many places on the Puna. There are loads of high peaks in the area and plenty of weird and wonderfully couloured lakes – black, turquoise, dark blue, crimson. There are many vicuñas on the lower part of this circuit, but for the few days spent above 5,000m you are unlikely to see any signs of life at all.
We caught a lift in a 4×4 from Fiambala to the refugio at Cazadero Grande (on the main, paved highway), then the camioneta went off road and drove us 10kms to a partly derelict and very basic refugio at Quemadito. There is water here in the Rio Nacimiento, and we stayed the night.
The following day was a long one, even though we had mules to carry our bags, as we walked up river towards Aguas Calientes (4,200m). After 8kms we passed a small waterfall, and 7kms further on we turned up the Aguas Calientes valley, and away from the Rio Nacimiento, at Las Juntas. 6kms up this valley, near the source of the slightly warm spring at Aguas Calientes there is a sheltered cave and some places to camp out of the wind.
Next day we walked 15kms to Agua de Vicuña (4,950m). At first we wandered up some shallow quebradas that it’d be possible to go the wrong way in and waste a bit of time, but after this we were walking up a very gentle gradient on a wide open plain, heading just to the right of Volcan del Viento. Luckily there was little wind around or this wouldn’t be much fun as there’d be lots of sand in the air. At Agua de Vicuña there was a small penitente field up a valley to the north, so we were able to get water before camping behind a boulder and stone wall that previous hikers had built.
The third day of our walk in was a short one – continuing up the valley and over the Portezuelo Laguna Negra (5,570m), from where we had views of the small, dark lake, just to the north of the pass, and also our first sighting of Ojos del Salado and Medusa. Our basecamp at El Arenal (5,500m) was about 4kms further on from the pass, in the direction of Ojos. To get there you have to cross over a few small ridges, so there is a bit of climbing and descending to do. El Arenal makes a good base from which to climb Medusa and Volcan del Viento, and is also a good place from which to set out to make higher camps on Ojos and Cazadero/Walter Penck.
After climbing some of the peaks in the area, we walked out by following the valley that runs between Volcan del Viento and Olmedo (the volcano on the southern flanks of Cazadero). It took a day (12kms) to get to a camp (5,400m) on the east side of Nacimiento. (You have to head west over a small ridge when you reach the flat pass south of Viento and Olmedo to get to the valley near Nacimiento. If you stick to the main valley this heads back down to Aguas Calientes.) Then it was a further day to walk the 14kms back to the Rio Nacimiento and then 9kms following this to get back down to Las Juntas. From here to the road was nearly 30kms, and was a long day with heavy packs.
Some GPS points
|Cazadero Grande Refugio||27.42016 S||68.13098 W||3,462m|
|Quemadito||27.37242 S||68.22502 W||3,650m|
|Las Juntas (go R for Aguas Calientes)||27.34508 S||68.34022 W||3,954m|
|Aguas Calientes||27.30501 S||68.35151 W||4,196m|
|Enter Quebrada||27.28029 S||68.36634 W||4,268m|
|Take quebrada on R||27.27002 S||68.37889 W||4,331m|
|Go L, straight at V. del Viento||27.25560 S||68.38281 W||4,388m|
|Climb up ridge to R, onto plain||27.24955 S||68.38825 W||4,481m|
|Leave plain, enter quebrada||27.22489 S||68.41347 W||4,664m|
|Agua de Vicuña||27.19793 S||68.43022 W||4,944m|
|Portezuelo Laguna Negra||27.16523 S||68.46047 W||5,572m|
|Good sheltered camp spot||27.15941 S||68.47213 W||5,541m|
|El Arenal camp||27.14957 S||68.49919 W||5,513m|
|Flat pass (head R over ridge towards Nacimiento)||27.22066 S||68.48526 W||5,331m|
|Join Rio Nacimiento||27.30758 S||68.41042 W||4,349m|