Monday, January 10

El Tatio

A tour of the Atacama Desert is incomplete without a visit to the El Tatio geyser field. Its location on the Andes altiplano, 4,320 metres above sea level, supposedly makes it the world’s highest such field. It also has a rather unique geology. Overnight sub-zero temperatures chill the plateau and its underground water source which then makes for some spectacular geothermal activity shortly after dawn.

Incredibly, an entire natural depression nestled in the mountains erupts with hundreds and hundreds of billowing steam columns and spluttering geysers. Some columns rise an impressive ten metres or more into the air while the largest geysers erupt for almost ten minutes at a time. It’s an impressive sight.

Even more remarkably, within hours the morning sun has warmed the area causing most of the geothermal activity to cease. While El Tatio’s geysers weren’t as spectacular as the geyser we saw in Iceland several years ago, the dramatic transformation from a flurry of steam columns to a barren plateau was definitely a highlight.

Given this unique dawn phenomenon, visiting the site required an exceptionally early start. El Tatio is also located almost 100 kilometres from San Pedro. As a result, we rose at 3.20am in time to join a tour group at 4am. We then endured a two-hour bus road, a third of which consisted of travel along rutted gravel roads. However, the journey was worthwhile and I’d recommend it to anyone that’s never seen geothermal activity before.

Perhaps the only negative of our entire visit was the rather meagre breakfast provided afterwards. This consisted of stale bread rolls, chocolate chip biscuits and eggs that our guide hard-boiled in a nearby hot spring. I later read that the water at El Tatio is undrinkable thanks to dangerously high arsenic levels. I certainly hope the bag in which our eggs were cooked was properly sealed!

Our journey back to San Pedro was broken up by two memorable stops. The first was a photo stop at a high-altitude wetland where we were able to watch endangered black coots nesting, flamingos wading and the odd vicuna (a type of high altitude Llama) grazing. The scene was unbelievably peaceful and idyllic. Our second stop was at the remote village of Machuca located about 4,000 metres above sea level. The village consists of a dozen adobe buildings, each capped by a quaint thatched roof of reeds. However, its most note-worthy building is a small white-washed abode church that sits on a nearby hill.

I boldly strode out to visit the church while Garry loitered in the village. He’d spotted local cooking delicious Llama kebabs on a small charcoal BBQ. Garry probably chose the easier excursion. For those readers familiar with high-altitude travel you’ll know that air pressure falls as you rise subsequently reducing the volume of oxygen taken with each breath. As a result, climbing up to the church yard left me breathless and had to rest for several minutes before moving on.

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