Day six in Chile
01.11.2016 - 01.11.2016
El Tatio geyser field
It takes a certain amount of sacrifice and discomfort to visit El Tatio. For one thing, you will sacrifice sleep, as all tours leave very early in the morning (in our case, 4.30 AM). This is because the steam from the geysers is most active and visible at dawn. You must also be prepared to be cold (-12 degrees the day we visited) and to cope with altitude – the geyser field is at 4,200 metres above sea level. So is it worth it? Oh yes!
El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world, with over 80 active geysers. For the most part they do not erupt to a particularly impressive height (the average is 75 centimetres) although the tallest can reach six metres. What is striking here is the sheer number of them in such a concentrated area. The spectacle is enhanced by the columns of steam that rise above each geyser and condense in the cold morning air – hence that early start.
The geyser field lies about 90 kilometres north of San Pedro de Atacama, along a mountain road that in daylight offers amazing scenery, as we were to see on our return. But driving out of town in a small convoy of tourist buses and cars (everyone leaves around the same time), all I could see out of the bus window was the looming dark shadows of the surrounding hills and overhead thousands of stars – our first reward for rising so early. By the time we arrived, at around 6.00 AM, the sky was already growing lighter and the stars fading, but in any case these were soon forgotten at the sight of the steaming landscape that surrounded us.
We stopped briefly at the entrance for our guide to get our tickets (entry costs 5,000 pesos, which is included in the cost of some tours but not others, so do check when booking). Some people also took the opportunity to visit the toilets, the only ones at the site. Despite the other-worldly scenery the area near the entrance did not initially inspire – a large parking lot full of buses and other vehicles, and a lot of bundled-up very cold tourists! But once we drove into the site itself and got out of our bus, it already seemed a bit less busy, and a lot more exciting! The geyser field is pretty large and guides obviously collaborate to lead their groups on different paths through it, so although you will inevitably encounter other people it isn’t crowded enough to spoil your experience – and after a few attempts to take people-free photos I soon realised that these silhouetted shapes tended to enhance my images rather than spoil them!
Tourists at El Tatio
But before we even set off on our walk we had a safety briefing. You will see that the geysers are surrounded by stones which have been placed here by locals to mark the safe walking areas. Get too close and you risk falling through the thin crust into the boiling water. This is a real warning – tourists have done exactly that from time to time and been severely burned or I believe even died. Watch your step at all times, stay reasonably close to your group and take any warnings that you are getting too close very seriously.
The other safety risk relates to the altitude. Your guide (if you’re on a tour, as most visitors to the geysers are) will brief you on the possible symptoms of altitude sickness, which include headaches, nausea and dizziness. If you feel any of these you should alert your guide if on a tour, or descend to a lower altitude if you have come independently. Even if you don’t have any symptoms, be prepared to feel some fatigue so take it easy here – no rushing around!
Once in among the geysers your guide will lead you on a winding path between some of them and, as you go, explain something of the phenomenon. Geysers are caused when surface water gradually seeps down through the ground and meets rock heated by magma, so are most often found in volcanic areas such as this. The heated water erupts through narrow channels under extreme pressure (if there is more room, a hot spring is formed rather than a geyser). These eruptions happen periodically as the water overheats then (through erupting to the surface) cools again. Between eruptions the water steams and it is that steam that makes the El Tatio field look so other-worldly at dawn.
We spent about thirty minutes here. We walked, took photos, and shivered in the icy air – although I realised that my feet, which are usually the first part of my body to feel the cold, didn’t do so, presumably because the ground is so warm underfoot. Gradually the sun started to touch the surrounding mountains, and at the moment when it was high enough to reach down into the valley it seemed to me that a collective sigh of pleasure arose from everyone as they were touched by its warmth.
The sun touches the mountains
This was our cue to head back to the parking area where a breakfast of hot tea or coffee, cake and biscuits was served on a table set up with views of the geysers. As well as enjoying the hot drink and warmth of the sun, I had fun photographing a cheeky Black-hooded Sierra-Finch who came pecking for crumbs under the table.
After breakfast we moved on to another area where it is possible to bathe in the hot spring water at the Pozón Rústico. Anyone who takes a tour here is advised to bring bathing suits and a towel, but we had opted not to as the thought of changing into almost nothing and then getting wet in that chilly air didn’t especially appeal! When I first saw the pool, I wondered if I had made a mistake, as it looked sort-of fun, but as it turned out the bathers didn’t really get very long to enjoy the experience, allowing for changing time, and it would all have been a bit rushed for my liking.
About a third of the people on our tour chose to go in the hot spring. I had been a little concerned that there would be nothing to do for those not bathing there would be little to do but wait, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! There is plenty to see in this part of El Tatio too. Chris and I really enjoyed exploring the area near the pool where there are several more geysers, including the one that erupts the highest (up to around 6 metres) which we were fortunate to see in action (first of the photos below). Looking around on our own meant that we could take our time over our photos and as the sun was now up the temperature was much more pleasant here. The time passed quickly and soon we had to return to the bus to meet up with the bathers – some of whom seemed to have really enjoyed the experience and others less so!
After visiting the El Tatio geysers we started back to San Pedro with our tour group, stopping at a couple of places on the way. The first of these stops was here at the Putana wetlands. Yes – wetlands in the driest desert on earth! Of course, we had missed seeing this sight on our way up to the geysers as it was still very early and completely dark outside, which made it all the more a surprise when the road looped around this area of marshes and blue waters in the valley of the Putana river. I was very happy when the bus stopped and we were able to get out and take some photos.
The Putana river rises to the east of here, on the northern slopes of the volcano of the same name which lies on the Chile/Bolivia border and can be seen in my photo above (left of image). This is an active volcano which last erupted about 200 years ago. It is sometimes also known as Jorgencal or Machuca. At this point on its journey to meet the Grande river and eventually the San Pedro, the Putana seems to be partially dammed (I don’t know whether naturally or by the road), creating this beautiful landscape. These wetlands attract many ducks and other water birds, and among others we saw Giant Coots, Andean Geese and some Ruddy or Andean Ducks with their distinctive blue bills.
The Giant Coot is the only member of that family to have reddish legs. It builds its nest of aquatic vegetation in highland lakes such as this. The Andean Goose lives in the lakes and marshes of the high Andes. It has orange legs and a small pink bill, with both male and female looking alike. Male Ruddy or Andean Ducks only have the distinctive chestnut colouring that gives them their name in the summer months, so clearly when we saw them in late October it was still too early in the season for this. The ones in my photo are both males, by the way, as the female doesn’t have the blue bill.
I would have liked to have spent a bit longer here, walking further along the water’s edge, but it was soon time to re-board the bus to carry on to our next stop. As we left our driver pulled over briefly and our guide leant out of the window to speak to some other tourists who were down by the water, pointing out the signs indicating that you must stay on the path at all times. Make sure you follow this instruction so as not to disturb the birds.
The road to El Tatio
Of course, despite my heading, these photos were all taken on the return trip to San Pedro de Atacama, rather than on the way to the geysers, as at 5.00 AM it was far too dark to see anything but stars. Bumping along in the dark I was totally unaware of the beauty of the landscape that surrounded us, so it was especially wonderful to see it in all its glory on the return trip. The first three photos here were taken between El Tatio and the Putana valley, while the fourth was taken just after leaving the wetlands. I managed to take all of these from the moving bus, as well as quite a few that were rather less successful, owing to the bumps in the road and reflections in the bus windows!
Most if not all tours to El Tatio include a stop at Machuca on the return trip. This is a tiny village, with only about 20 houses and a church, which lies more than 4,000 metres above sea level. At one time the village was completely deserted, all the inhabitants having left to move to other villages in less challenging locations. But the San Pedro Municipality encouraged some to return by stimulating agriculture, mainly llama rearing, in the area and today there are about 15 people living here. They subsist as much on the income from visiting tourists as from their animals. Each morning as the tour buses and cars pull in on their way back from El Tatio, the people here set up their grills to cook kebabs of llama meat – although I have seen at least one online source claim that the meat is sometimes a less exotic beef. They also sell empanadas filled with local goats cheese – we bought a couple of these and found them excellent.
Do leave time though for a walk around the village which is very photogenic. The houses all have a colourful cross on the roof for protection, and
are attractively thatched although naturally very simple. But the real star of the village is the whitewashed church perched on a ridge behind the houses. There’s a short but steepish climb up to this – take it slowly as you are around 4,000 metres above sea level and altitude will make you shorter of breath than usual. But it’s worth the effort, especially if you are lucky enough to find it open as we were (I gather this isn’t always the case). An elderly traditionally-dressed woman sat just inside with a shaggy black dog and I asked if I might take her photo but she indicated not so I left her in peace. But there are no restrictions on photographing the tiny interior as far as I could tell. The exterior though is the most photogenic aspect, with its stumpy bell tower, traditional thatched roof, gleaming white walls and deep blue paintwork.
Church in Machuca
By the way, if you’re a James Bond fan this village may look familiar as it was used as a location for the film “Quantum of Solace” (standing in for a Bolivian village, somewhat controversially, as Chile and Bolivia are hardly the best of friends).