Walking through El Tatio, the highest geyser field in the world
The Atacama Desert. That was one of my major draws to Chile.
As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve been in the Atacama Desert once before back in 2012, that time in Bolivia, and seriously, the scenery was some of the best I’ve ever come across in my life.
On that trip I spent four days driving across the endless and eternal landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats of Bolivia. During those four days I took well over 2,000 photos; it didn’t matter where you pointed your camera, it seemed that every single shot was breathtaking, each one an everlasting memory.
With high clouds, mirror reflections and one of the best places in the world for forced perspective photography, there was just so much fun to be had. There are some places that are just made for photography, and the Atacama Desert is certainly one of those places.
I think that was the inspiration for this trip, to come back to this part of the world again, this time to Chile, and to do it justice, so to say I was excited to explore the Atacama Desert again would be an understatement.
Once we arrived in the little tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama (the best place to base yourself to venture into the Atacama Desert) we walked around the town to see what tours were on offer and when they were going.
San Pedro de Atacama is a bit of a strange place in the sense that it only exists to fulfil a need – tourism. Approximately 90-95% of the money flowing through San Pedro is because of tourism, and there are over 50 different tour companies all offering similar things to choose from, so it pays to do a little research beforehand to make sure you’re going with a reputable company. Due to the high supply, certain standards aren’t met by a few companies, so it’s better to pay a little more for a guaranteed good quality experience as opposed to gambling on a new company to save a few pesos.
After looking at a few, we went with Trip Panda as we really liked the sound of their tours and as they came highly rated (both in Lonely Planet and on TripAdvisor), so, the next day, at the incredibly early start of 4:30am, we were dosing on a bus on our way to El Tatio, the geyser field in the Atacama Desert.
At 4,320 metres, the El Tatio geysers are the highest in the world (they will take your breath away, figuratively and literally), and the best time to see them is for sunrise. This is when the temperature is a lot cooler so the hot steam from the geysers rises higher, making it more visually stunning. All of a sudden waking up at 4:30am makes sense!
Being 83 kilometres away from San Pedro de Atacama, the bus takes about an hour and a half to get there, and as it’s completely dark outside all you can really do is rest your eyes (good luck sleeping!) until arrive.
Once you do, it is just about light enough to see the geyser field off in the distance as you register and get your tickets (all foreigners have to pay an additional $5,000 to get into the park).
Vero, our guide for the day, said she likes to take people to the least popular geysers first to beat the masses of people and to spend more time at the more famous ones later on in the morning. To be fair, when you’re in such a spectacular setting as El Tatio it doesn’t matter where you start; you’re just completely caught up in where you are.
For those of you who don’t know what a geyser is, they are bubbling cauldrons in the ground pouring off sizzling steam, and walking around you feel like you’re at the end of the world in dark deep Mordor from Lord of the Rings. It really is such a surreal setting.
After walking around for about 30 minutes, the sun started to crest over the mountains blanketing everything in an ethereal glow, and people become just dark shadows moving in the mist, losing all form.
Also at the geysers is a geothermal pool, and despite the extremely cold air temperature (you really do need to wrap up warm here people), the hot springs are the perfect way to wake up properly.
After we took a dip in the geothermal pool, Vero prepared breakfast for us all of scrambled eggs, cakes and coffee. After a wee deep in the geothermal pool and a bite to eat we were all starting to feel a bit more awake, excitedly talking to each other about the geysers and how they compared to other sites people had been to in Chile.
(Photo by Wanderlust Chloe)
Once we walked around all the different geysers, we left at around 10am to drive back to San Pedro de Atacama, but that’s not the end of the tour by any stretch of the imagination.
On the way back we stopped off at a number of different viewpoints to see things like flamingos and the mountains in the area.
Also, we stopped off at a tiny little village, just a cluster of houses really, where only one family still lives as guardians of the mountains. These days, the village is open to tourists where they cook lama, and it’s quite cool to see the types of houses these people used to live in.
It seemed to me no matter where we stopped off, no matter where I looked, I was greeted with some of the most beautiful views I’d ever seen.
I wanted to come back to the Atacama Desert, to this part of the world, to set my eyes upon this landscape again, and after seeing the El Tatio geysers I knew I made the right choice. If you think waking up at 4:30am to go and see the El Tatio geysers is a struggle, trust me, it’s worth it.
A tour to the El Tatio geysers with Trip Panda costs £29 ($38) and includes all transport costs and breakfast. Make sure you bring an extra £6 ($8) for the El Tatio park entrance fees as these are not included in the price.