Anyone who plans a trip to the Atacama ultimately adds the small town of San Pedro de Atacama to the list of ‘must do’ places. This isn’t so much because of the town itself, although it’s an attractive enough place (more on that in a separate article soon). It has all to do with being a convenient base from which to explore some spectacular scenery within an hour or two’s drive from there. We stopped there for three days, during which, we took in a tour to Moon Valley to watch the sunset and a full day out to the spectacular area of Salar de Tara in the Los Flamencos National Reserve (see my separate article on Salar de Tara). Our last day took us on one of the most popular tours; the El Tatio Geysers, an other-worldly place about an hour and a half drive.
First thing to note is that it isn’t a particularly easy place to drive to. It’s at high altitude, the road is long, and on at least one occasion we were bumping up and down over large rocks scattered on the bed of a shallow but flowing river. Needless to say, your average Nissan Micra hire car will quickly come unstuck and so travelling on one of the organised tours makes a lot of sense.
Second thing to note is that you need to get to bed early the previous night. To see El Tatio geyser field at its best requires being there before sunrise when they are at their most active and when the sun’s heat has yet to diffuse the steam. That means hitting the road from your hotel at 4am or 5am (depending on the time of year).
The journey up to El Tatio is actually fairly boring at first. The tour bus simply drives out onto small desert roads and tracks and winds its way up the landscape in the complete desert darkness. After a while, you might catch the tail lights of another tour bus up ahead, as this is a popular daily trek for the tour operators. After half an hour or so, the first traces of a pale blue start to emerge on the horizon, throwing distant mountains into high contrast silhouettes against the sky. Apart from that though, there is little to see on the way up. As you near the geyser site itself, the first faint bluey purple glow of daylight is taking hold of the sky and you can make out the scenery a little more.
Our mini bus pulled up into a small parking area and after a short but very helpful geography lesson from our guide, we hopped out to start exploring. The first thing that hit us as we emerged from the bus was the shock of the cold. We had been advised to wear warm clothes, but this was brutal. The early morning temperature back at San Pedro had been about three degrees centigrade. Up at 4,300m it was minus ten (it was a mild night apparently). I’ve been outside in that temperature before, but not walking around for an hour. The bitterly cold dry desert atmosphere cuts into fingers and toes, rendering them numb.
As we wandered across to the geyser field, the forces of nature at work are formidable. There is something quite awe-inspiring hearing and feeling the gurgling, popping and spluttering of boiling water under your feet, erupting in constant billows of steam. The whole area felt alive – a massive cauldron of underground water, beneath which, mother nature’s huge magma oven was keeping things on a constant boil.
It’s a large site too. There are over 80 active geysers and multiple blow holes shooting steam about 5 metres into the air, making it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and, apparently, the third largest in the world. It is also one of the highest elevation geyser fields worldwide.
After a while, we popped back to the tour bus where the driver had prepared breakfast, which was very welcome indeed. Scrambled eggs and coffee whilst standing in a geyser field watching the dawn break is one of those memories that will never fade.
As the sky continued to turn lighter, the sun started to peak over the mountain behind the geysers and the warming effect of the sun was almost instant. Over the next thirty minutes or so, the temperature rose to a more respectable 15-20 degrees and our toes started to thaw.
The full drama of the geyser’s show can’t be captured on camera, but the early morning sunlight does present the opportunity for some great dramatic pictures of gurgling geysers.
Sun up, and now in the full brilliant desert sunshine, it was time to head back. However, this trip had a couple of further surprises in store. Driving up in complete darkness meant that there was no opportunity for admiring the scenery along the route.
The journey back though, was beautiful. We stopped off along the road at an incredibly scenic area of wetlands, where we had time to wander along the edge and watch the wildlife and take some photos. The scenery had that magical combination of bright wetland yellow and greens, a bright blue sky, the sun sparkling on the water, and snow peaks on the hills in the distance. Quite wonderful, and a real treat on the return journey.
We made one final stop at the tiny village of Machuca. This cute little place consisting of about 20 houses is very pretty and the enterprising villagers have realised that there is money to be made from hundreds of passing tour buses returning to San Pedro. Arrival at Machuca means a quick look around the village, including up to the 17th Century church on the hill, followed by a welcoming brunch of either goats cheese Empanadas or Alpaca kebabs being cooked on the barbecue.
All very strange if you ask me, but nonetheless a memorable end to a awesome day with mother nature.
If you would like to view the full gallery of 30 high resolution photos of our visit to El Tatio, just click here.