Rock climbing has only recently become a popular activity in Chile and Bolivia and this is most obvious when you see who is climbing – most people are in their 20s. Unless you are a mountaineer, or fancy a go at climbing the formidable Torres del Paine, then the crags are probably best visited as an element of a wider trip to explore the country, as they were for us. Saying that, there is plenty of potential for rock climbing in these two beautiful countries.
Mountaineering has a much longer history in both countries because the Andes forms a considerable proportion of their landmass. Many of the peaks are quite accessible, with lots of volcanoes (there are around 500 in Chile alone, whilst Bolivia has some of the highest volcanoes in the Andes). A number of the Patagonian peaks and the Southern Patagonian Icefield were explored in the late 19th or early 20th Century by both local (eg. Father de Agostini) and foreign explorers, whilst the seriously technical prospects such as the Torres del Paine were only climbed much more recently (northern tower – Guido Monzino (1958); middle tower – Bonnington and Whillans (1963)). The towers are still climbed every year, usually by a big wall/aiding approach over a number of days and the current cost of a permit is around $1,000. More commonly these days, tourists seeking adventure will often use local companies to guide them up the less technical peaks when they are in season (the dry season in Bolivia and summer in southern Chile).
Cragging as a sport has really only developed recently, first in Chile and subsequently in Bolivia. Information for the climbing areas in both countries can be found online (Chile, Bolivia) but local information for specific crags can be a bit harder to find. There is a guidebook available for the crags around Santiago but topos are only really avaiable for other areas on the web. Most of these are detailed in the UKClimbing.com links to the individual crags. In line with the growth of adventure tourism to both countries, a new development is that a number of local agencies will take people out to some of the crags, particularly round San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, and Sucre and La Paz in Bolivia.
Our climbing journey in Chile really only started in the central region around Santiago. There are a few venues in Southern Chile such as a traditional crag near Chile Chico and Valle Cochamó (known as the Chilean Yosemite), as well as a couple of minor sport crags. Time pressures meant that we didn’t have time to explore them. In particular, Cochamó involves a long 10 hour trek in, usually with the aid of donkeys to carry the kit but autumn and the onset of rains meant that the refugio was closed. Instead we bought a guidebook in Santiago and tried out a couple of local sports crags there.
El Arrayan is really a city crag. It is not far from one of the posher suburban areas and can be a little difficult to find (the instructions in the guidebook are wrong and the correct ones are on UKClimbing). There are a number of well bolted routes on either side of the valley, so something will be in the shade throughout the day. It is a popular spot and we had to queue for a route as the local students were already there. They seemed to be taking advantage of what appears to be an annual student strike in March and spent the day at the crag rather than on the picket lines!
The slightly larger area of Las Chilcas is a somewhat surreal place. It is on the PanAmerican Highway, halfway between Santiago and Valparaiso (on the coast) and when we were there, they were busy duel-carriaging the highway. The crag is actually next to the road and we ended up parking amongst the works vehicles. Some people run across the road and climb over the central barrier to reach the crag but we managed to find a tunnel to walk through. There are a reasonable number of routes, generally well bolted on sometimes sharp volcanic rock. Some of the routes are very good but the noise from the passing traffic and the general litter does distract a bit. Again it is a popular place for locals to climb and it is also possible camp to next to the crag. Both these crags might be called esoteric in the UK but in Chile they are major venues.
There are a number of other crags that have been developed in the wine producing valleys around Santiago, many of which are traditional rather than sporting. There is also plenty of scope for more serious mountaineering (and skiing in the winter that is a relatively short drive away from the beaches on the coast – Chile is a very narrow country!). We didn’t have time to explore these as we wanted to cross the Andes to Mendoza in Argentina before snow closed the passes, so that we could sample some Argentinian wines and crags.
In the north of Chile, there are a couple of crags that have been developed near San Pedro de Atacama, with the recent discovery of a third promising area. We managed a day climbing at Tocanao, which is within easy reach of San Pedro for a daytrip. It is set at 2,500m above sea level and is a river canyon coming down from the volcanoes on the border between Argentina and Chile. The rock is volcanic and the setting is a very pleasant place to climb and camp. The routes are bolted and some of them follow natural lines, which I find refreshing at a sport crag.
We went to have a look at Socaire, but as it is significantly higher up (at an altitude of 3,600m) and it was not obvious where we could park, we just spent the night parked up nearby. As there were strong winds, it was very cold and as we were starting to come down with a bug, we decided not to pursue looking for the climbs the next morning. By all accounts it is another great setting, again in a river canyon but probably is really only a summer venue.
Bolivia surprised me with an excellent website detailing many of the venues, although finding information about the actual routes proved to be a bit harder. There are a few areas where crags are concentrated (around the cities of La Paz and Sucre), with a couple of other venues scattered around. Our first taste was when we drove up the Valley of the Rocks in Southern Bolivia on the lagunas route. This is a place rarely visited by climbers but has huge potential. Imagine 35km of crags along a valley, somewhat reminiscent of Stanage in places but volcanic formations rather than gritstone (for US climbers, imagine Joshua Tree National park but with all the crags lined up side by side). There is such a huge amount that can be done here and the best approach would be either bouldering or highballing as some of the rock can be a bit friable. The remote setting is brilliant (you certainly won’t have to queue for routes here) but as it is over 4,000m altitude, you probably should acclimatise a bit first.
Further north, there was promise of a couple of crags near the very pleasant city of Sucre and so we tried to find out about them. I managed to meet up with Carlos Eduardo Vargas Tito, who is the main climber in Sucre. He is the instructor that takes all the tourists out. I contacted him through the email address on his website and we met at his climbing wall, which is based at Condor Café. Carlos is very helpful and has been the driving force behind developing the crags in the area. He suggested that we need to go early in the morning as they caught the sun in the afternoon. As that wasn’t going to work for us because we had Spanish lessons in the mornings, he told me about the ‘best’ place to climb in Bolivia, which was near Potosi. He couldn’t come with us as he was off to Piedra Parada in Argentina the next day but he did give me information as to how to get there.
This crag is on an estancia (a farm), Estancia Churata. We found it quite easily using his directions but, as he warned there might be, a chain across the gate blocked the entrance. We parked up and went for a walk to look at the crag and found some people just leaving the estancia. It turned out it was German (the owner’s son?), who was a friend of Carlos’ and was also a climber. He let us in but was off to Potosi for the day so left us to it. If you want to climb here, you should contact Carlos first.
The crag itself is in a magical setting. It is a small river valley that is quite green (unlike the surrounding altiplano) and is at around 3,500m. A huge herd of llama live there, who seem to be looked after by an old, slightly deaf couple (German’s parents?). The climbing is still being developed and the routes are spread out. There is plenty of potential for more and if you can arrange to climb with German, he can show you where to go. We didn’t and just found the most promising line, a two-pitch route up an arête. However, we only did the first pitch as the second seemed a bit friable, with very spaced bolts, and the location is extremely remote. It is also the venue of what now seems like an annual climbing festival that Carlos organises…
Probably the most well developed area for rock climbing in Bolivia is around the capital, La Paz, in the north. There is one crag that the tour companies take people to in town (Aranjuez), but this looked like loose, friable sandstone to me. There is also reputedly climbing up the Devil’s Molar, a prominent rock outcrop on a ridge south of the city. Probably the most developed is the Zongo Pass near Huayna Potosi, one of the highest peaks in the area, just north of the city. This is probably the best crag in the area but is one to visit in the dry season (April to October).
A more recently developed area is at the village of Peñas, about halfway between La Paz and Lake Titicaca. When you get there, ask for the priest (or his Belgian assistant, Davide Vitale), who have developed the crags here. You can email Davide in advance and he can arrange a home stay if you want. They are pretty well bolted and there are a series of short routes within walking distance of the church. The rock is solid and you might well get a couple of friendly dogs showing you the way to the crag. They want to try and develop this area as a good base for both rock climbing and more serious mountaineering in the Andean peaks just across from Peñas. However, do be warned, the weather can change very quickly in the wet season and go from hot sunshine to freezing cold rain and wind in a matter of minutes, which was not so pleasant!
All in all, these two countries potentially have a lot to offer rock climbers but are probably best visited as part of a trip to visit the country (unless you want to go and do some serious big wall climbing in the Torres del Paine, spend time in Valle Cochamó or go peak bagging). There is a lot of scope for new routes and new venues so it might be a case of watch this space…