Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cazadero Grande to El Arenal loop - Catamarca, Argentina - January 2011

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 4x4 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 Refugio27.42016 S68.13098 W3,462m
Quemadito27.37242 S68.22502 W3,650m
Las Juntas (go R for Aguas Calientes)27.34508 S68.34022 W3,954m
Aguas Calientes27.30501 S68.35151 W4,196m
Enter Quebrada27.28029 S68.36634 W4,268m
Take quebrada on R27.27002 S68.37889 W4,331m
Go L, straight at V. del Viento 27.25560 S68.38281 W4,388m
Climb up ridge to R, onto plain27.24955 S68.38825 W4,481m
Leave plain, enter quebrada27.22489 S68.41347 W4,664m
Agua de Vicuña27.19793 S68.43022 W4,944m
Portezuelo Laguna Negra27.16523 S68.46047 W5,572m
Good sheltered camp spot27.15941 S68.47213 W5,541m
El Arenal camp27.14957 S68.49919 W5,513m
Flat pass (head R over ridge towards Nacimiento)27.22066 S68.48526 W5,331m
Join Rio Nacimiento27.30758 S68.41042 W4,349m

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