Puna 9: The Plan

In short: cycling to, then climbing, nine 6400m+ peaks on the Puna.

We fell in love with this area back in 2010, during our first biking visit to NW Argentina. Remote gravel tracks winding between giant volcanoes. Not a being or vehicle in sight. Initially though, we stuck to the principal routes, leaving civilization for only a handful of days at a time.

Then later that trip we ran into Corax; a meeting that changed our whole outlook on cycle touring. He was considering cycling to Antofagasta de la Sierra, which seemed (to us at the time) a mission in itself. He also talked of continuing 150km further into the wilderness to Antofalla volcano, one of the most inaccessible high peaks in the Andes. This sounded plain crazy, and something we couldn’t even consider doing.

But the seed was sown. Bit by bit we began seeking out smaller and smaller roads. The lure of those ripio tracks that don’t show up on most maps, and head out into ‘la nada‘ began to grow ever stronger. This build up has finally manifested in our most ambitious plan yet, and the main focus of our four month summer holiday from Huaraz.

The Puna has the highest concentration of 6000m peaks outside Asia; 13 of them are over 6400m. We’d like to climb them all. In 2011 we began by climbing four*, so in December and January we’ll be targetting the remainder**.

We kick off in San Pedro de Atacama for what we suspect will be the most remote and challenging of the stages in our plan. 600km over Paso Socompa to Antofagasta de la Sierra, via Llullaillaco (6739m) and Antofalla (6440m). Gone for now are the halcyon days of lightweight bikepacking. We’re leaving San Pedro with 17 days of food – our bikes will be heavier than tanks.

It’ll be a surprise to us if we make it to all nine summits (most likely the weather, though possibly fatigue or disillusionment will intervene) but we’ll give it a good go…

Cycling to Incahuasi (6,641m)

Cycling to Incahuasi in 2011. In our experience, biking to the base of the mountains is usually the most tiring part of the journey to a summit in this area.

Gazing at Ojos del Salado (6,892m)

Then comes the hike with heavy packs to high camp. Haz heads for Ojos…

Haz on the summit of Ojos del Salado (6,892m)

The reward: panoramic views of the Puna. A high altitude desert of giant volcanoes and colourful lakes, seen here from the summit of Ojos.

The Peaks
*Those we climbed in 2011
Ojos del Salado (6892m)
Cazadero/Walter Penck (6670m)
Incahuasi (6621m)
Nacimiento (6460m)

**Our targets for 2013-14
Pissis (6793m)
Bonete (6759m)
Tres Cruces Sur (6749m)
Llullaillaco (6739m)
Tres Cruces Central (6629m)
El Muerto (6510m)
Antofalla (6440m)
Veladero (6436m)
El Condor (6414m).

6 thoughts on “Puna 9: The Plan

  1. dave morgan

    Just finished eating through Christmas but I was regularly distracted from my turkey, thinking about you two on El Condor. The best Christmases are always the nontraditional ones. We won’t know for a while but I hope your day was a successful one.

    I learned somewhere on your blog that the best time to cycle Peru is during the northern summer – in my ignorance, I presumed everything would be reversed down there, not considering rain – and this news is causing serious changes to my plans. Back at work after a year in Asia, I imagined myself stuck in the daily grind for the next few years but managing 8-10 weeks off (northern) summer is feasible. Sure, longer would be better but this would still be worthwhile, an introduction to the continent and a very different experience from riding in India.

    I’m still learning my way around your sites, which I like very much. And I fully understand the labour involved in maintaining a site, working on the many photographs, struggling with painfully slow connections over a cell line because WiFi is pretty rare away from the tourist areas. But it is a labour of love and, mainly, for the loved ones at home – and the random stray hits with encouraging comments that make it all worthwhile. Being off the beaten track must complicate things further: how do you keep camera batteries, laptops and other non-usb devices charged? Does solar work well enough for GPS, phones, kindle? There is certainly a different set of challenges going off the grid (not that India’s grid is ever that reliable). Maybe you have all this info on the site and I haven’t found it yet. And bikes: you must get through a lot of chain oil in the dusty conditions. It seems a good locale to try out a Rohloff system but I doubt my budget will stretch that far at the moment. Are your rides regular 26in mountain bikes or beefed up expedition bikes? Lots of questions, I know, but I’ll do some searching. I’m looking forward to your news upon return to civilisation. And hearing details of the Great Divide. As an ex-Brit, though, I might have found an extra 21 km to ride – to a cycling newby like myself, I’d have gone for the thousand miles.

    Looking forward to your news, Dave

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      Hi Dave,
      Thanks for the comment!
      The northern summer is certainly the best time for Peru, and 8-10 weeks would be more than worthwhile. I doubt youd get bored if you cycled there for 8-10 months though!
      We’re just carrying a tablet, cameras and GPSs with us, as far as chargeable devices. The tablet we use sparingly when out in the wilds (listening to music and podcasts uses little battery), our camera batteries last forever, and we have lots of AA batteries for the GPSs. We tried solar years ago, but it was useless – maybe it’s better now.
      We’re using touring bikes – Surly Long Haul Truckers. They’re far from ideal for the kind of trips we do now, but when we began cycling 5 years ago we used to stay more on the paving, which is why we bought them originally. On the Puna we’d do far better on fat bikes…

  2. Jan


    when I first read about your plan I just thought the route to Llullaillaco and Antofalla to be impossible by bike, mainly due to the lack of water. Now as your description reads just like a certainly strenuous but otherwise fairly normal tour – ok, some pushing required – I am REALLY impressed, congratulations! I just hope you also get along with water on your way to El Condor, it will probably not be easier there to find some.

    By the way: What about the highest peak of the Nevados de Cachi, it seems to be missing on your list? Ok, it’s not exactly in the puna but at least on its edge.


    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      Hi Jan,
      Thanks for the comment and sorry I’ve taken so long to reply! Yeah, lack of water was one of the main challenges of the route from Socompa to Antofagasta, but with penitentes we managed ok – carried a max of 17 litres each. It’s certainly possible, but a challenging route (though it’d be a fair bit easier without the mountains as you could go much lighter without mountaineering kit and so much food). It’s much much harder than cycling through the Bolivian Lagunas (where we didnt ever really have to push) or any of the standard high passes between Arg and Chile, for instance. North of Antofalla is very sandy – we pushed about 30km in total on the route – which translated into time was probably over 2 full days (couldnt push at more than 2kph as it was through deep sand).
      Re Nevados de Cachi: we had to draw the line somewhere, due to time constraints, as to which peaks we wanted to climb. We chose everything above 6400m as it seemed quite convenient – Cachi is sort of in a different area and below the 6400m mark, and on the main part of the puna we’ll be in there’s nothing between Veladero (which though officially 6436m, we think is probably the lowest of the 9 we’re trying to climb) and Reclus, which is a fair bit lower at about 6275m. We’ll have to return another time for Cachi, and any of the 9 we don’t make it up!


      ps You’re right, there was no decent water between Antofagasta and Las Grutas, via Condor!

  3. Guillaume

    Pikes are back in the Andes !!
    I am really happy to see you back in the Puna, the place I like the most on Earth ! Your 2014/2014 project is AMAZING and I’ll be checking your blog frequently, waiting for your updates. Your pics are lovely and the texts are just perfects.
    I wish you luck and all the best for your wonderful and ambitious trip !
    Happy New Year from Paris !
    PS : You’ll probably see my messages on top of Pissis, and on the 3 summits of Tres Cruces… 😉

    1. Neil and Harriet Post author

      Gracias amigo,
      Yep, this is one of our favourite places on earth too – it seems though that the world of ‘Atacamists’ (as Bruno calls them) is quite a small one!
      Didn’t manage to find the testimonios on Tres Cruces Sur or Central because of all the snow. Heading to Pissis soon, so will look out for you there!

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