Acamarachi aka Cerro Pili (6046 m): A Symphony of Altitude and Culture

Acamarachi aka Cerro Pili (6046 m): A Symphony of Altitude and Culture
Top of Acamarachi aka Cerro Pili 6046 m high.

On January 4, 2023, I traded the wintry elegance of Vienna, Austria, for the vivid panorama of Santiago de Chile. As the plane touched down and the Andean landscape unveiled itself, a new chapter of adventure beckoned.

The modern and historic city of Santiago de Chile

Santiago greeted me with its seamless blend of modernity and history, a place where skyscrapers stretch toward the sky even as the roots of culture dig deep into the earth. Two days in the capital city were marked by culinary delights—delectable ceviche, hearty empanadas—and explorations that acquainted me with Santiago's kaleidoscopic spirit.

Calama, the mining town in the heart of the Atacama dessert

January 6, and another flight. This time, it was a journey to the heart of Chile's copper mining country—Calama. The city welcomed me with its stark but mesmerizing landscape, serving as a geographical antithesis to Santiago. Here, I met Bernhard, a friend who had already been marinating in the flavors of South America for months. We checked into a hotel that defied the arid environment around it, boasting a luxurious pool and a buffet that did justice to every taste bud.

Our Hotel in Calama. An oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert.

Using the remainder of the day to explore Calama, Bernhard and I immersed ourselves in a city that thrives in the middle of the desert. A brief yet enriching interlude, it set the stage for the adventure that awaited us.

That day in Calama, Bernhard and I took a beat to explore this desert jewel, a city flourishing despite its arid backdrop. But Calama was just the prologue, a starting line that led to greater thrills and challenges—chief among them, the looming presence of Acamarachi, also known as Cerro Pili.

Exploring the Desert Oasis: A Day in San Pedro de Atacama to find a car

Next morning, we hit the stores for those mountaineering must-haves: gas canisters and proviant. Essential shopping done, we cruised over to the legendary San Pedro de Atacama. The village was a highlight reel of desert aesthetics and cultural nuggets. While basking in the sights, we started our quest for a 4x4, the chariot that would shepherd us to Acamarachi's slopes.

Finding a 4x4? Easier said than done. Calls were made, agencies visited, but lady luck was playing coy. It wasn't until we returned to our Calama haven that evening that fortune finally favored us. Over dinner, a found number and a phone call later, a jeep was ours—for ten glorious days and at a price that could only be described as a steal. We celebrated as anyone in such jubilant circumstances should: with bottles of crisp, cold beer.

Fast-forward to the next day, and we found ourselves back in San Pedro de Atacama, this time settling into a charming, personality-filled hostel run by an equally charming owner. Formalities came next—a trip to the car rental agency to sign on the dotted line, officially making us the temporary masters of our 4x4 steed.

But San Pedro wasn’t just about utility; it was about reveling in the experience. The streets of San Pedro flowed with a unique brand of leisure and vitality. We indulged in the local cuisine—each bite a new stanza in the poem that was this journey. And yes, another round of beers, this time in a pub so inviting it felt like an old friend.

Health and safety, however, were never far from our minds. We swung by a local pharmacy to pick up dexamethasone, a backup plan in pill form, just in case altitude acclimatization decided to go south.

As the sun dipped below the horizon and the cool desert night began to unfold, we called it a day. Beds had never seemed more inviting.

The long drive to the vehicle base camp of Cerro Pili (Acamarachi)

Waking up the next day, the air was thick with anticipation. First on the agenda? Picking up Susi, our trusty Suzuki turned 4x4 chariot. It wasn't just a vehicle; it was a member of the expedition team, eager to ferry us to the doorstep of Cerro Pili. Rolling into the hostel's driveway, we loaded up Susi with our gear. Each backpack and piece of equipment felt like a chapter of the adventure that was about to unfold.

From the hostel, Susi carried us to the local shops, a treasure trove of essentials. Bottled water filled the trunk—hydration is the silent yet crucial teammate in any high-altitude game plan. Of course, we didn't forget about sustenance and morale boosters—a final grocery run that included some well-deserved sweets. Because what's a mountain conquest without a little sugar-induced euphoria?

Our final pit stop with Susi was at the last fueling station on the road to Acamarachi. The gas canisters were filled to the brim, another checkbox ticked in our meticulous prep for the ascent that awaited us.

The rubber met the road, and Susi hummed with excitement as we pointed her east on Route 27. This wasn't just any highway—it was a pathway adorned with natural spectacles. Alpacas and vicuñas casually munched on sparse vegetation, as if cheering us on. The real show-stopper? Flamingos. Seeing them for the first time was like unlocking a new level in this grand outdoor game.

As we drove, we found ourselves sandwiched between towering volcanoes—natural skyscrapers scraping the sky, their peaks cresting between 5,000 and 6,000 meters. It was a drive through Earth's gallery of geological grandeur.

The journey gave us pause at Mirador Quebrada Quepiaco—a photogenic interlude that felt like Earth's own selfie spot. But it was just before the next scheduled photo-op at Mirador Salar de Pujsa that the adventure escalated. A nondescript dirt route veered to the right; this was our path to Cerro Pili's vehicle base camp.

Susi, our steadfast Suzuki, faced her real test here. The route was a labyrinth of stones and steep slopes—each turn and incline questioning our decision to tread this path. It was a grinding three-hour ordeal, lifting us to the dizzying altitude of 4,600 meters.

Through terrain so rugged it felt like the Earth's crust had cracked open just to challenge us, there were moments we doubted if Susi could handle it. But like any seasoned adventurer, she pulled through, delivering us to the base camp. Because that's what teammates do—they carry you when the going gets tough.

Pulling into the vehicle base camp at a lofty 4,600 meters, the place was desolate except for a lone white pickup truck. No signs of human activity, like we'd stumbled into an otherworldly pit stop. What we did find was a massive stone, a geological anomaly in this expansive desert, slightly off the beaten track from the usual base camp. That stone became the cornerstone of our temporary home.

We pitched our tent, leveraging both Susi and the stone as makeshift windbreakers. In the Atacama, the luxury of shade is more valuable than gold, and we arranged our encampment to maximize that sparse commodity. With camp settled, we cranked up our gas stove and cooked—because nothing says "adventure" like a hot meal in the middle of nowhere.

I am chilling at our basecamp rock in front of Cerro Pili.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the sky lit up in a celestial dance of stars—more stars than I'd ever seen. It felt like each one had a story to tell, twinkling in languages too ancient for us to comprehend. Drifting off to sleep to the soft beats of reggae music, I started to feel the altitude gnawing at my senses.

In the dead of the night, I woke up, head pounding as if it held all the altitude we'd ascended. No surprise—I hadn't given myself the luxury of acclimatization. A couple of aspirins later, I tried to snatch pieces of sleep, but it was like trying to hold onto sand. The night was a carousel of wakefulness and drifts into shallow dreams.

Small hike near the vulcano Cerro Pili

Morning came, and an unsettling realization followed—the white truck had vanished. It was just us, the stone, and Susi. No phone service, no human life in sight. It was both eerie and liberating. Breakfast on the stove, chill vibes around our sanctuary of a stone, pages of a book turning almost in sync with the shifting sun.

Feeling bold in the afternoon, we opted for a small hike to a neighboring hill, a little brother to Cerro Pili. One to two hours of trekking, and there we were, on top of the world—or at least, it felt that way. Munching on some snacks, the view stretched infinitely, interrupted only by the grandeur of nearby peaks. The sensation of absolute isolation and exposure was both humbling and invigorating.

Heading back to camp, we soaked in the ambiance one last time before nightfall, feasting not just on our camp-cooked meal, but also on the awe-inspiring celestial show overhead. This time, as my head hit the pillow, the altitude felt less like an adversary and more like a tough-love mentor. With a more forgiving sky and a more accommodating body, sleep came, and it felt earned.

Climb of Cerro Pili (Acamarachi) 6046m

GPS Tracking of My Ascent up Cerro Pili (Acamarachi) Starting from the Base Camp for Vehicles

We were up and at it by 4:30 a.m., groggy-eyed but eager. A quick concoction of chicken soup simmered on the stove, accompanied by cookies and that quintessential mountain brew, coffee. A glance outside revealed a pre-dawn landscape, with just a hint of sunlight flirting with the distant horizon. It was cold, the wind piercing through like it owned the place. And let's not sugarcoat it, the altitude was like a weight on my entire being—I felt sapped, each movement a herculean effort.

After a reluctant farewell to our cozy, makeshift campsite, Susi roared to life. The climb beckoned, and we wanted to make those few meters to the official vehicle base camp at 4,600 meters count. There was an unspoken understanding between us and Susi—this is as far as she could take us, the rest was on our own two feet.

The climb was, for lack of a better term, a slog. Picture a slope generously adorned with rubble, as if some giant had casually emptied a bag of rocks, sand, and pebbles all over it. We were engaged in a maddening dance—two steps forward, one step back. The elevation, the fatigue, the challenging terrain; it all converged, sending my stomach into revolt. About 1 1/2 hours into the climb, I bent over and emptied my guts. From this day on, the mere thought of packaged chicken soup will probably trigger my gag reflex.

Look back to the official vehicle base camp of Cerro Pili.

Despite these challenges—or maybe because of them—each hard-earned step carried a sense of accomplishment. We were in this for the journey as much as the destination, and that journey was demanding a toll. Yet, even as I navigated this rugged slice of earth, fighting both external elements and internal maladies, there was nowhere else I'd rather be.

We finally made it to a spot known as 'the shoulder,' and it was a sight for sore eyes—a small lake like a liquid sapphire nestled amidst barren landscapes. After a quick breather, it was time to tackle the next steep slope. If you're getting déjà vu from the words 'rubble,' 'stones,' and 'sand,' you're not alone; the mountain seemed to have a penchant for repetition.

Eventually, we arrived at a modest rock wall. Our route traced its left edge before thrusting us into a colouir. While it wasn't as steep as what we had encountered earlier, the terrain was, simply put, exhausting.

At around 5,700 meters, Bernhard threw in the towel. I could see it in his eyes; he was spent. I asked if he was okay making his way back to camp alone and if he'd mind me carrying on solo. His response was as crisp as the mountain air: "No problem."

With Bernhard descending, I plodded ahead, and oh what a change half an hour can make. I stepped onto snow, and it felt like walking on a cloud compared to the rock-strewn path I'd just navigated. The snow conditions were ideal—not too deep, providing just enough resistance for solid footing. Walking had suddenly shifted from a laborious chore to, dare I say, enjoyable? It was as if the mountain finally decided to throw me a bone, and for that, I was immeasurably grateful.

Snow on Cerro Cerro Pili

Finally, I reached the top part of the volcano, Acamarachi or Cerro Pili as the locals call it, and what a crown it was. Beautiful weather unfurled around me like a tapestry of the Gods—sunny skies, wisps of cloud, and an expansive view that could make even a seasoned mountaineer's heart skip a beat. I felt euphoric, each cell in my body buzzing with exhilaration.

Those last steps? I attacked them with a grin so wide it could've split my face in two. My boots met the summit, and in that moment, I was on top of the world, literally and figuratively.

The last slope to the top.

This marked my second 6,000-meter peak and the third time I had crossed that dizzying altitude. I was tired but not depleted; the descent loomed ahead, sure to be a grueling affair, but that was a concern for later. For now, I just stood there, basking in the triumph, every pore singing a silent, jubilant anthem. Susi, our trusty Suzuki, may not have made it up here, but I could almost hear her engine purring in delight from the basecamp. Ah, the little joys and big victories of life!

Then came the descent. Navigating down the snow-covered slopes was a breeze, but oh, the rubble that followed! It's one thing to face a shifting, rocky terrain on fresh legs; it's another to tackle it when your muscles are screaming for respite. Let's just say it's far less charming on the way down. After what felt like an eternity but was actually about 2-3 hours, I returned to the vehicle basecamp.

I made my way back to our makeshift campsite, nestled beside our guardian stone. Bernhard was just waking up as I arrived. We exchanged stories, celebrated the climb, and basked in that post-adventure glow. The menu? A hearty lunch that tasted like victory. I dozed off shortly after, still riding the high of the summit and the company of a good friend.

Back to Calama

The next morning we bid our open-air home adieu and made our way back to Calama, where the comforts of our previously visited hotel awaited. If walls could talk, these ones would've probably said, "Welcome back, you crazy mountain conquerors!" Ah, the sweet surrender to a soft bed, knowing that Cerro Pili had been added to the list of peaks conquered. Susi, faithfully parked outside, seemed to wink a headlight in approval. Another mountain, another memory, and a whole lot of moments that money can't buy. And so goes the life of an adventurer—where the highs are higher than most people ever go, and the lows? Well, those are just valleys on the way to the next peak.