At up to 15,505 feet (4,726 meters), the road to the Paso San Francisco border crossing is one of the highest paved roads in the world and the second-highest pass between Argentina and Chile in the entire Andes range (behind the unpaved Paso Aguas Negras crossing). Welcome to the 94th border crossing of our Trans-Americas Journey! Here’s our border crossing 101 intel about Paso San Francisco and the scenic journey to this high-altitude border crossing past the spectacular mountains and volcanoes that make the Ruta de Siesmiles area of the Andes so famous.

Paso San Francisco Chile Argentina border

From Paso San Francisco, at an elevation of 15,505 feet (4,726 meters), you can see the peaks of 11 different 6,000+ meter high mountains including Ojos de Salado which is the second highest mountain in the Americas (to see it, look above the hood of our truck).

From: Tinogasta, Argentina

To: Copiapó, Chile

Date: January 1, 2024

Lay of the land: Leaving Tinogasta on well-paved Ruta 60 you pass Fiambala, the last town (and fuel) on this route, and soon enter a section known as the Ruta de Seismiles (Route of the 6,000s). This spectacular stretch is so named because the road passes a section of the Andes that ranks as the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas with 19 peaks over 19,685 feet (6,000 meters) including Ojos de Saldo at 22,519 feet (6,864 meters) which is the second highest peak in the Andes after Aconcagua (the highest peak in Chile and the highest active volcano in the world). During this short drive, four of the 10 highest mountains in the Americas are visible.  Along the way, you travel through the shockingly red Quebrada Las Angosturas and pass the turnoff for the Balcon de Pissis drive. As you climb toward Paso San Francisco, you’ll be surprised to see the large Hosteria Cortaderas seemingly plopped down in the middle of nowhere about 60 miles (95 km) before the Argentinean border facilities at La Gruta which are 111 miles (178 km) past Fiambala and 141 miles (226 km) past Tinogasta at an elevation of 13,160 feet (4,011 meters). While at this border crossing facility be sure to look around. From there you can see a handful of 6,000 + meter mountains including San Francisco Volcano, El Muerto, and Incahuasi, the 9th highest mountain in the Americas at an elevation of 21,722 feet (6,621 meters). As a bonus, you can also glimpse a bit of the peak of Ojos del Salado from the border post.

Incahuasi San Francisco volcano

Approaching the Argentinean border facilities at La Gruta with Incahuasi on the left and the San Francisco Volcano on the right with the pass sitting in the low saddle to its right.

This border is not integrated, so Argentinean and Chilean procedures are carried out in separate buildings in separate locations (look for our Trans-Americas Journey sticker at both facilities). At the Argentinean facilities, head for the green door (Military Police) to get a slip of paper that collects a series of stamps (don’t lose this). Then go to the migraciones (migration) office (remember, Argentina no longer stamps your passport in or out, but they will stamp the slip of paper), then on to the aduana (customs) office to cancel the Temporary Importation Permit (TIP) required for your vehicle. Customs officials will stamp your slip of paper too. When leaving, give the slip of paper to an official who will let you through a barrier to continue toward San Francisco Pass itself which is located 13 miles (21 km) further along. It took us about 25 minutes to drive from the Argentinean border facilities to San Francisco Pass at 15,505 feet (4,726 meters). This pass is the actual physical border between Argentina and Chile (look for another TAJ sticker at the top). From the pass, you can see 11 different 6,000-meter (19,685 foot) peaks including Ojos de Salado, the highest in the region and the second highest in the Americas.

san francisco pass mountain panorama

Some of the 6,000+ meter peaks visible from the San Francisco Pass including (left to right) Incahuasi (21,785 feet), Incahuasi Chico (19,843 feet), Muertito (19,646 feet), and the second highest mountain in the Americas, Ojos del Salado (22,609 feet).

From the pass, entering Chile and the Atacama Region, the road continues over a high-altitude plateau at an elevation of over 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) for 46 miles (75 km) then the road drops into the Salar de Maricunga salt flat at 12,300 feet (3,750 meters) and Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park. On the far side of the salt flat, you reach the Chilean border facilities about 67 miles (108 km) after crossing the pass. This drive is spectacular with scenery including full-on views of the enormous Ojos del Salado Volcano and sparkling Laguna Verde which has a refugio and hot springs. This spot is favored by climbers acclimatizing for an attempt to scale one of the many 6,000 meter + peaks in the region. As you carry on to Copiapó from the Chilean border facilities on the main paved road you’ll pass a large Codelco gold mine.

Volcano Ojos del Salado

Ojos del Salado, the second highest mountain in the Americas, as seen from the San Francisco Pass highway heading down into Chile.

Elapsed time: We left Tinogasta at 8:45 am. We arrived at the Argentinean border facilities just over three hours later where Argentine formalities took just 10 minutes. We drove for 2:45 hours to the Chile border facilities where formalities took 45 minutes due to an overzealous agricultural inspection (more on that below).

Laguna Verde Paso San Francisco

Approaching Laguna Verde during the descent from the San Francisco Pass.

Days given: 90 days for us and 90 days on the TIP for our truck

Fees: none

Services: none

Vehicle insurance needed: You must have third-party insurance for your vehicle to drive legally in Chile and Argentina. We bought a long-term policy that covers us in the MERCOSUR countries of Argentina, Chile, Perú, Brasil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Additionally, Chile requires that drivers carry supplemental insurance called Soapex which you can also purchase in advance online.

Nevado Tres Cruces National Park

Where to fill up: The closest gas on the Argentina side is in the town of Fiambala and there is a YPF fuel station in Tinogagasta. The closest fuel on the Chile side is in the town of Tierra Amarillo near the city of Copiapó. There are many, many miles between those two points with no gas available along the way so be sure you have enough fuel.

Need to know: Be prepared to be at altitudes above 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) for 46 miles (75 km) as you travel over the high plateau between the Argentina border facilities and the Chile border facilities. Overall, this drive includes 189 miles (305 km) at over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). There is no cell service or fuel or facilities of any kind along the way. During certain times of the year, you may lose an hour when you cross from Argentina into Chile (or gain an hour in the other direction) because Argentina does not observe Daylight Saving Time. Check the local time at the border once you’ve made your crossing.  The entire stretch of this route between Tinogast and the Chilean border facilities is a proper paved highway except for a short section entering Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park. This high pass frequently closes in the winter and has been closed to passenger vehicles for months at a time due to the development of a major lithium mining project nearby. Check the official status of border crossings in Chile here. And check the official status of border crossings on the Argentina side here.

Salar de Maricunga

Approaching the Salar de Maricunga and the Chile border facilities in Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park.

Overall border rating: Spectacular scenery with very little traffic, however, customs officials on the Chile side of this border were sticklers. An agent there took our nuts and warned us that tea and herbs (including spices like oregano) are “plants of origin” and subject to seizure. We’d never heard that before. The agent also asked us to bring in all of our “luggage” so we brought in our bags from the back seat then the agent came to the truck and poked around the cab a bit and asked us to open a few bins and even looked under the hood (another first).

Paso San Francisco adventure travel side trip tips: If you’re in a sturdy vehicle, we recommend doubling back immediately after completing Chilean border formalities to visit the Laguna Santa Rosa sector of Nevado de Tres Cruces National Park to see flamingos and much more. And on the Argentina side, a drive to Balcon de Pissis–with spectacular views of Mount Pissis, the third highest mountain in the Americas– is also highly recommended.

This border crossing drive was so spectacular that we produced a drivelapse video, shot with the Brinno time-lapse camera that’s always mounted on our dashboard, so you can see what we saw.

See the entire drive up and over Paso San Francisco from Argentina into Chile in our road trip route map, below.

 

Here’s more about travel in Chile

Here’s more about travel in Argentina

 

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