A chilly, early morning outing to northern Chile’s El Tatio geysers

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At more than 14,000 feet above sea level, Chile’s El Tatio geyser field is the highest in the world.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the fifth post about my adventures. See June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island.

Take the coat or not?

That’s the discussion I have with myself before nearly every international trip. The coat is midweight, comes to my knees and has a hood. It is water-repellant but not much protection in a downpour.

It has a thin lining, so I can wear a sweater or sweatshirt under it and be comfortable at temperatures to around 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

In that I don’t like being cold, I usually take it, even when the trip is to a destination that boasts a mostly temperate climate.

On Easter Island, I knew I wouldn’t need it, and I didn’t think it would get much use in Santiago, or San Pedro de Atacama, in the Chilean desert, virtually rainless and one of the driest places in the world.

(Little-known fact: Chile is a country rich in lithium reserves — the top producer in the world of the metal. About 20 percent of the world’s output comes from the salt flats in northern Chile. Australia and Argentina are Nos. 2 and 3 in production. And yes, that lithium, the metal used in batteries … and more.)

But in that the itinerary I put together included a pre-dawn outing to the El Tatio geysers, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of San Pedro de Atacama, the small town (population about 4,000) already at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), I thought it might be a good idea.

So I took the coat. And I was glad I did — it came in handy during a shiver-worthy morning spent in the Andes mountains.

At about 4:30 a.m., while I was waiting in the lobby of my small hostel to be picked up by my day-trip tour group, I was chatting with some other travelers who had already gone to the geysers and were headed on a different outing to Uyuni in Bolivia. Even at that point I was wondering if I’d need my coat for the day. They said yes, which is also what my guidebook advised.

The white Mercedes minibus was nearly full by the time I got in. It was chilly, but even so, I noted some of the other women were wearing shorts, like they were headed for a day at the beach. I wondered to myself if I had miscalculated, but it wasn’t long before I knew I hadn’t.

Over bumpy, winding roads with few markers or lighting of any kind, we were gaining in altitude, heading toward El Tatio, at more than 14,173 feet (4,320 meters) above sea level, the highest geyser field in the world.

It was still pitch dark and getting colder. The windows had frosted over, but I don’t think we were missing much in the way of scenery at this point other than rock formations.

I already had my sweatshirt’s hood up, but I added a wide acrylic headband under it to cover my ears, and then put my coat’s hood up also. From my pockets, I pulled out my thin gray gloves and put them on. I was wearing every piece of warm clothing I had with me. Added to the heat being generated by about 20 bodies, I’d say I had my gear just about right.

It took about 90 minutes to get to El Tatio, the area of which covers about 3.62 square miles. Along the way, the van was pretty quiet. Many people seemed to be dozing, ignoring the uneven ride and the early hour.

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As a safety precaution, we were told to stay to the right of the path delineated by red-paint-topped rocks. 

When we disembarked, the sun was rising into a cloudless azure sky and immediately warming the crisp morning air. Fortunately, it wasn’t windy. My guess is that the mercury was around freezing.

More than 80 active geysers are scattered around El Tatio, the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere and third largest in the world. The highest eruptions reach about 20 feet, so not as impressive as, say, Old Faithful’s maximum of 184 feet in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in the United States.

But the sight is exciting nonetheless, due to the unpredictability of the geysers’ timing and the ethereal beauty of the drifting columns of steam, dissipating like ghostly apparitions not long after they’ve flared from the surface.

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I caught this geyser in mid-eruption. You can see the water spurting up in the center of the picture.

Despite the abundance of about 100 fumaroles (gas-spewing volcanic openings), I wasn’t getting the odious whiff of sulfur that would be an expected accompaniment.

Many signs warn about staying on the designated paths, cautioning that the hissing, gurgling, ground-level puddles may look benign, but they could erupt at any moment, spraying scalding water to a temperature of about 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 celsius). The terrain is often uneven, adding to the necessity of watching where you’re going.

This is no joke. In October 2015, a Belgian woman, concentrating on taking photographs, slipped into a hot spring and was burned over more than 80 percent of her body. She died in a Santiago hospital.

Illustrated informational boards alerted us to some of the flora and fauna of the high desert. We saw a series of spiky, yellow-brown plants, known as coiron o paja brava, that provided great contrast to the drab gray and brown mud pools.

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Though in perhaps the driest desert on earth in northern Chile, there is still enough scrub for grazing vicunas.

It wasn’t until we were on the way back to San Pedro de Atacama that we spotted vicuñas (in the camelid family, related to the llama) grazing in the hillsides, a small rabbit-like rodent with a long tail called a viscacha (in the chinchilla family), llamas themselves, lots of species of birds and flamingoes (Chile has three varieties).

The ride back also gave us a glimpse of the yareta, a mounded, slow-growing bright green plant that looks like moss gone wild in shape and size. And lots of prickly cacti.

After we’d explored the geothermal field, we returned to the parking lot where our guide and his wife had unpacked coolers from the minibus and set up the breakfast spread. Cheese, sandwich bread, cold cuts, avocados, cookies and fruit were available, as was juice from cartons, instant coffee, tea and hot chocolate and thermoses of hot water. (The previous day on a different outing, we had stopped at a bakery for fresh rolls. We didn’t have that option for this earlier-departing tour.)

My guidebook said that some tour guides boil eggs for breakfast in the geyser pools. I didn’t see anyone doing this, and considering the advisories to steer clear of the boiling water, I can’t say how accurate this claim is.

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The contrast in attire is what’s most notable here: Thermal-pool bathers in swimsuits and non-bathers in layers of clothing.

An outdoor thermal pool with a cabana was our last stop at the geysers. Some people had brought (or worn) their swimsuits and towels, and they took a dip. I didn’t do this but asked one of the women to assess the water temperature. She said that except for one hot spot, the water was quite cold. Although the air temperature was warmer than when we arrived, emerging from the water must have been … invigorating.

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Near the small village of Machuca, we saw a small herd of llamas. 

About halfway back to San Pedro, we briefly disembarked at a village called Machuca. I think this was to serve as a bathroom break, and to give visitors the opportunity to souvenir-shop and to taste barbecued meat cubes, which might have been llama. Cold drinks and empanadas were also for sale. Those who wanted to photograph the church or to go inside were asked to pay.

We arrived back in San Pedro at about noon. By this time, I had peeled off all my layers, had put away the rest of the warm-weather gear, and my coat was slung over my arm. It was already so hot that I eagerly thinking about putting on a T-shirt and shorts.

Quick reference: I booked with Lithium Aventura. Calle Caracoles No 419 B-1, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. travel-lithium.com (Spanish only).

Just about every tour company in San Pedro de Atacama covers this route. If you book an additional day tour with the same company, you may be able to bargain and get a better price. Many companies also insist that you pay in cash in Chilean pesos (if you haven’t made a reservation online). You may book with one company and get picked up by another. This is often done to fill a minivan and group speakers of the same language.

It may be a crapshoot as far as your guide’s English abilities. Despite an in-depth talk with the company rep I booked with in person and assurances of multilingual ability, my guide’s English was not good. He spoke Spanish, and some of my fellow travelers helped get the gist of what he was saying across to me.

Entry fee to El Tatio (not included in tour cost): 10,000 Chilean pesos (about $15). Since 2004, the site has been under the administration of the indigenous Atacameño people.

It’s advisable that visitors spend at least one overnight acclimating to the altitude before going to the geysers. Further, don’t consume alcohol, and eat lightly the evening before your trip. Dress in layers (you’ll be peeling them off on the trip back), bring bottled water, sunscreen and a hat.

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