Just below the Tropic of Capricorn, on the edge of the shimmering plains of the Atacama salt flats, the dusty hamlet of Socaire stands alone against the wilderness. It is the last bastion of civilisation to be found before the Argentine border, and although the land between the two might be dry and barren, it is not empty. Snow-capped volcanoes line the horizon, rank and file, and from their flanks a network of canyons and ravines spread into the desert.
Quebrada Nacimiento, located approximately 7km south of Socaire, is the name given to the ravine which houses the town’s namesake crag. Within the canyon, more than 100 routes can be found, equipped in an egalitarian style that allows sport and trad to exist in harmony. But the prospect of harmony ends there, and in contrast to the nearby tourist trap of San Pedro de Atacama, the town of Socaire is not particularly friendly toward outsiders.
Climbing access has been a touchy issue in the San Pedro area, and many communities have not been particularly receptive to the sport. The reasons behind this are unclear, but problems regarding the cleanliness of water sources are vaguely alluded to in online topos. Whatever the reason, there has certainly been some amount of friction in the recent past, the result of which has been the wholesale closure of the nearby crag at Tocanao.
The quebrada of Tocanao runs through the centre of the village and is therefore easy for the locals to monitor and control. By contrast, Socaire’s crag is located outside of town – a short drive, but certainly not within walking distance. Perhaps for this reason, access remains possible, albeit tenuously so.
The beta from climbers in San Pedro was to seek permission from the Socaire community and that the locals are happy for climbers to use the area so long as the community is consulted first. This might be true if you’re Chilean, but we gringos got given the run-around. Socaire has a population of about 185 people, and I think we probably spoke to about half of them before we were finally told that we needed a letter from the president of the community.
The problem is that nobody had any idea where El Presidente was or when he might return. We searched high and low for this mysterious authority figure, and to this day I can neither confirm nor deny that any such person exists. After three days of trying to do the right thing, we decided to take our chances and enter the canyon without an official blessing. Having finally entered the quebrada, we met a group of local climbers who told us that as long as we packed our trash out and kept a low profile, everything would be apples.
Route information is pretty thin on the ground in much of South America, and Socaire is no different. There are 22 sectors spread throughout the canyon, each with imaginative names such as “Sector 1” and “Sector 2” and “Sector 3” and so forth. Of the 100 or so routes in these sectors, the allocation of sport and trad lines is roughly equal. Intricate sequences of pockets and crimps are generally bolted, while the cracks and dihedrals are rightfully left unequipped. Outstanding climbing can be found in each discipline, but so can abject misery, and rock quality is usually the deciding factor.
“Variable” was the word that a friend used to describe the quality of Socaire rock to me, and it is perhaps the kindest description one can bestow. There are certainly patches of excellent stone to be found, but they are mere pieces of jetsam floating in a sea of choss. Not only does this variability fluctuate wildly from sector to sector, it can change rapidly within the scope of a single pitch. This is not always apparent from the ground and one can wander unexpectedly into a bit of a thrill zone.
But maybe I’m just useless at route selection and a few seasons of masochism at Tibrogargan and Frog Buttress have left me with a rare malady known as “Choss Blindness”. More discerning climbers will no doubt prove more effective at locating quality routes, and I myself happened upon some occasionally – a classic sport line named Don Cerefino can be found at Sector 3, a sustained and delicate sequence of pockets that is exceptional at the grade, and an unnamed but glorious hands-to-fists splitter can be found at Sector 16, a crack which would be the stuff that dreams are made of if it were only three times longer. By and large, I found that the sport climbs tend to feature better quality rock, despite being less aesthetically pleasing.
As for accommodation, there are very few choices in Socaire, but camping is a solid option. There are bivvy caves scattered throughout the quebrada, but given the access dramas, I don’t know that I’d recommend this option. A better plan is to hire a Wicked Van from San Pedro and park it at the gravel pit located a few kilometres south of the crag (you can find it on the iOverlander app). This site offers flat ground, shelter from the highway, expansive desert views and 360-degree sunsets. That said, it’s located at nearly 4000m and is brass monkey cold in the mornings, especially when high winds rocket merrily across the open plains.
Food and water is scarce, and I recommend bringing it from San Pedro de Atacama. Unfortunately, it is one of the most expensive towns in Chile, which in turn is one of the most expensive countries in South America. There is a permanent fruit and vegetable market near the main square which is a decent option, but you better get used to eating lentils and rice if you plan on living cheap. Treat your water, or better yet, buy it bottled.
In summary, it’s hard to recommend a place like Socaire to visitors of an international persuasion. There are several difficulties involved in climbing there, not least of all the problems surrounding access. Given the expense related in simply travelling to San Pedro, the possibility of being denied the opportunity to climb seems like a hell of a risk. There are plenty of great climbing destinations in Chile, but for the time being, it appears that Socaire might not be one of them.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
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