The Llullaillaco is located on the Chile-Argentina border. The Northeast Route is typically approached from Argentina. The other frequently climbed routes are the Northwest route accessed from Chile by way of the CONAF refuge. Another route, the Southeast route seems to have fewer climbing attempts and is somewhat steeper.
It is the highest archeological site in the world at 6730m. Mummies of 3 Inca children were discovered there in 1999 and are displayed at the Salta museum of high altitude archeology (MAAM).
No public transportation to Llullaillaco from either Chile or Argentina. Approach from Argentina is usually done from Salta (the last major city for supplies) and can take 2 days.
The drive is on dirt roads and you will past through the villages of San Antionio de los Cobres and Tolar Grande. Both these villages have minimal goods/services. A couple of small hotels/guest houses are available for accommodations. Reservations can be made in advance.
The drive from Salta to San Antionio de los Cobres is on paved roads (Ruta Provincal 51) and takes 2-3 hours. The dirt road (Ruta Provincal 27) from San Antionio de los Cobres to Tolar Grande passes through Desierto del Diablo and takes 6-8 hours. From Tolar Grande proceed west on the dirt road accross Salar de Arizaro to the mines on the west side of Salar de Arizaro. Continue southwest along a narrow winding road (Ruta 163) that ascends to the old mining area of Chualaqui. High clearance 4x4 recommended from here to base camp. Near this mine area was a nice spring that had water flowing from a pipe right by the road. The road continues northwest to Paso Socompa. Before reaching the pass you will proceed through a small valley between the peak Cerro de la Carpa on the south and Cerro Mellado on the north. At this point the route will follow a less travel road to the west leading to Paso Lluaillaco Sur. Before reaching the pass at a point just northwest of Cerro Rosado there will be a road that branches off and heads northwest approximately 6 mi / 9.6 km to the Northeast Route base camp. Total time from Tolar Grande approximately 8-10 hours.
If this map (Volcanes Llullaillaco y Socmpa Hiking Map 1:150,000k) is still in print, it will show the final road approach from the Salar de Arizaro to the Northeast Route base camp. The attached GPX file has the drive and climbing routes within the file.
Note: In 2020 there was a lot of mining activity in the area and due to the increased mining traffic the roads were pretty rough with wash board conditions. The times listed above reflect the rough conditions and our driving slowly to reduce any damage risk to the vehicles.
It appears that the Northeast Route can be accessed by driving in from the Chilean side by way of Paso Socompa on the northeast side of Llullaillaco. Also it looks like the route can be approached by driving from the Chilean side by way of Refugio CONAF and Paso Llullailaco Sur around the south side of Llullailaco.
The route from base camp to Camp 1 (16,100 ft / 4907 m), Camp 1 (17,790 ft / 5422 m) Camp 1a (18,800 ft / 5730 m) and Camp 2 (19,200 ft / 5852 m) is pretty straight forward. It follows gentle slopes southwest up the broad plain or valley. There are a few climber tracks/paths and cairns along the route. The route is generally easy walking with small rocks and reasonably firm footing. Occasionally the climber paths fade out but will re-appear if you continue along the same general direction. Once above Camp 2 the climber paths are a bit more difficult to follow and the route becomes steeper with a bit more loose material and larger rocks. The route heads in a more westerly direction and the best ascent route is moving toward the sub-peak on the left hand (South) horizon. As you near the bump, angle left and into the gully which has a bit of a climber path in it. Proceed up the gully to the little saddle at 21,400 ft / 6522 m which has an Inca ruin (Inca Saddle Ruin) at the saddle. From the saddle follow the well-defined path to the summit ruin. At the summit ruin bear left (South) and scramble easily up the boulders (approximately 60-80 ft) to the Summit. To descend follow the path back down to the Inca Saddle Ruin, bear left at the ruin and descend the easy slopes back to the high camp. This route has a pretty good path in it. The path is softer looser material and it is possible to make quite good time down the mountain. Going up this descent option is possible but the looser material makes it more of a struggle vs heading up the gully.
Regarding permits for Llullaillaco there is an application form which is necessary to complete and present (for signature) one week in advance at the Office of Tourism of the Salta Government.
Contact details are:
Programa Qhapaq Ñan - Sistema Vial Andino Salta, Argentina
Subsecretaría de Patrimonio Cultural
Secretaría de Cultura
Ministerio de Cultura y Turismo
Gobierno de la Provincia de Salta
Caseros 962, CP. 4400,
Salta Capital, Provincia de Salta,
+54 387 437 3110
Once this application form is signed it is also necessary to present a copy (for stamp) at the Municipalidad de Tolar Grande on the way to LLullaillaco.
This permit is not strictly necessary (nobody will actually ask for it on the way) but it is still a regulation with the Salta government.
Note: Approaches from the Chilean side may require additional paper work.
Be prepared for wind, cold, thunderstorms and high altitude conditions. Snow or snow patches may be on the route. Generally crampons are not necessary, but depending on time of year and snow fall they may come in handy.
Camping locations are prevalent in the area but water sources are rare. Bring plenty of extra water in the vehicle. Plan on camping near snow fields while on the mountain.
January, February and March appear to be the most common months for climbing
In January 2020 we put together a trip to climb the Northeast (Inca) route on Llullaillaco from the Argentinean side by way of Salta. Climbers were Chuck Huss, Mark Cole, Matt Berry, Kim Parry and myself, Dan Smith. We were accompanied by Anibal Maturano and Juan Pablo Ceballos who provided transportation and logistic support for our team. Anibal guides small groups and he can be contacted through his Facebook page. Other routes for this mountain are the Chilean side Northwest Route approached by way of the CONAF refuge and the Southeast Route which could be approached either by way of CONAF refuge or by way of Salta.
On Wed 1/8 we arrived in Salta (4500 ft / 1370m) and spent the night in a hotel.
On Thursday 1/9 we shopped at a local grocery store to pick up supplies and fueled the vehicles. Note: generally there is a lack of goods and services once you depart Salta. We drove to the village of San Antionio de los Cobres (12,400 ft / 3780 m) and spent the night in a hotel. The drive took about 3 hours along paved roads.
Friday 1/10 we drove out to Cerro Tuzgle (17,999 ft / 5486 m), our acclimatization peak, and setup a base camp (14,970 ft / 4560 m). Our route was on the southwest side of the mountain. The drive took about 2 hours to get to base camp over dirt roads. The Southwest Route follows an old mining road that switch backs up the mountain on a gentle grade. The narrow road actually can be driven quite a ways up toward the old mine. In the afternoon we walked up the road to an elevation of 17,600 ft / 5364 m. We turned around when a thunderstorm started to form so we descended back to base camp.
Saturday 1/11 we went back up the mountain to get to the summit. After hiking the route the previous day we were able to figure out which of the switchbacks on the road we could shortcut and reduce the hiking distance. We took about 4 hours to get to the summit and it took about 2 hours to descend. After arriving at base camp we packed up and went back to San Antonio De los Corbes and stayed in the same hotel.
Sunday 1/12 the vehicles were packed and we set off for the drive to Tolar Grande (11,500 ft / 3505 m). The drive turn out to be a long arduous drive. There are quite a number of mineral mines out in that region and due to the increased mining activity the roads have seen increased mining vehicle traffic. As a result of the increased traffic the roads have become very rough with wash board conditions resulting in very slow driving conditions. It took about 8 hours to arrive in Tolar Grande where we stayed in one of the local hosterias/guest houses.
Monday 1/13 we went to the office in Tolar Grande and got the final signature on the climbing permit and started driving about 9:30 am. Roads on this driving segment were also very rough. We arrived at the Northeast Route base camp (16,100 ft / 4907 m) about 6:00 pm and setup camp.
Note: The Northeast Route (Inca) contains many remnants of Inca stone structures with various pieces of wood scattered around the sites. Please do not disturb or destroy these important cultural sites to allow others and the scientific community to enjoy and study these sites. If you find anything that may be of cultural significance, please leave it in place and notify the authorities of the find. For more information: INCA RITUALS AND SACRED MOUNTAINS by Johan Renhard and Maria Constanza Ceruti, UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2010
Tuesday 1/14 the team prepared packs and began heading up to high camp (Camp 2) around 10:00 am. As we passed by Camp 1 (18,000 ft / 5486 m) there was a small snow patch at that location. We continued on toward camp 2 and noticed some snow patches and a small pond on a flat area and decided to make camp at this site. Our camp (Camp1a) was at 18,800 ft / 5730 m and had a nice little pond of fresh water. We arrived at this site about 3:00 pm.
Wednesday 1/15 we started the summit push about 8:15 am. As we worked our way up, we passed by the area for Camp 2. We did not notice any snow or water available directly in the area, so it was lucky we had stopped at the lower Camp 1a. Shortly after we left the Camp 2 area, we were passed by Anibal who had started his summit bid from base camp. As with the previous days of the trip, the weather conditions were excellent with light wind, sunny to partly cloudy and warm temperatures. The group proceeded out to the summit and the summit order was: Anibal (1:00 pm), Myself Dan Smith (1:30 pm), Mark Chuck and Kim (3:00 pm). Matt turned around at 20,000 ft. We all decided on a different descent routes that went quite easily and smoothly back down to the area of Camp 2 then traversed back to our Camp 1a. We did not encounter any large patches of snow or ice on the route. Conditions were such that we only used mid-weight hiking boots. Also weather was quite mild and our clothing consisted of medium weight layers. Be aware that other times of the year or varying temperatures may require heavier/warmer equipment and crampons. After resting in camp for a couple of hours we packed up our camp and headed back down to base camp. The last people arrived at base camp about 8:00 pm. On the way down we passed another group of three (friends of Anibal) that had setup up camp at the area of Camp 1 where there was a small snow patch. They made their summit bit the next day. We heard two of the three made the summit but they had some stormy weather with thunder and lightning.
Thursday 1/16 we packed up base camp and drove back to Tolar Grande. That evening in Tolar Grande there was a pretty good thunder and lightning storm and we were concerned the roads would be problematic the next day.
Friday 1/17 we began the drive back and did encounter some muddy areas. Fortunately there was enough early traffic on the road that areas were packed down and had begun to dry out. Also heavy road equipment was out and had started grading sections of the road. We proceeded all the way back to Salta and arrived about 7:00 pm.