When a friend suggested getting up at 4am to go see some pillars of steam, I’d be lying if I said I was massively enthused about the idea. How wrong I was.
A complex of over 60 thermal vents, the El Tatio Geysers sit an impressive 14,200ft above sea level, shooting towers of steam and boiling water up into the frosty morning air, creating a mesmerising vista across the barren plateau.
Before you do this trip, there’s a few things you need to know…
1. It’s cold. Seriously cold.
The early start is essential as you need to get up to the geysers before sunrise to see them in all their glory but boy, does this make it for a cold start to the day. Don’t be deceived by the daytime temperatures in San Pedro. I’m a big skier so am well used to the cold but in a t-shirt, hoodie and ski jacket, I was still cold in the -15C pre-dawn air. Wrap up warm and take gloves! Also, like most people, I’m sure you’ll be taking photos on your phone. Be aware that due to the excessively cold temperatures, your phone’s battery won’t be able to cope and will suddenly die. Be prepared for this by taking a charged external battery pack to juice up when the inevitable happens.
2. The road there is proper off road terrain.
If you want to really experience the Atacama desert for yourself, hire a car from the airport and do the trips by yourself. That said, don’t skimp on the car you get. For the road up to El Tatio, you will need an absolute minimum of a SUV but I’d highly recommend getting a proper 4×4 vehicle – I lost count of the number of times switching to full 4×4 got me out of a mess. The road climbs, it dips, it crosses small rivers and if you’re anywhere near to the vehicle in front, you’ll find yourself driving in dust clouds. Leave early and take your time!
3. Stick to the paths.
Once you reach the geysers, don’t try to be clever by exploring yourself. The paths are there for a reason. Just below the thin crust are pools of boiling water and they have been known to give way in areas where people have been told not to go. I don’t think I need to explain the consequences. At the same, be vigilant for patches of ice on the paths – the water may come out of the ground boiling but when it condenses, it also quickly freezes so can make the paths fairly slippery in places.
4. When the sun comes up, the temperature changes instantly.
When the sun finally decides to join the party, the air temperature changes faster than I’ve ever experienced. The shade line is easy to see creeping across the geyser field so try standing just in the shade and feel the warmth hit your body in a matter of seconds. When you’re fully basking in the sunshine, take two steps backwards and remind yourself just how cold it was a few moments ago. It really is like stepping into an outdoor freezer.
5. Take your time to enjoy the drive back
Whilst the drive up in the darkness is exhilarating through the fear of what unknown danger lurks just beyond the reach of the headlights, the drive back provides its own sense of wonder as the daylight reveals the stunning scenery that the darkness concealed. Rolling mountains in the distance frame open plains and the first flowing water I’d seen since leaving Santiago. Waterfowl and flamingos feed in the water just beside the road as curious Guanaco (a breed of Lama) casually wander across the road in front of you.