Our time in Chile showed us the diversity of the country, from the bustling capital of Santiago to the hills of Valparaiso. We hiked the Valley of the Moon and Valley of the Dead. We also witnessed the wildlife close up in the Salar de Atacama. Traveling in Chile while in my second trimester of pregnancy had presented some not so unexpected difficulties. Today’s excursion would be the biggest challenge yet. On our agenda was a visit to the geothermal field known as El Tatio Geyser.
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Pro-Tip: the El Tatio Geyser Field has absolutely no safety precautions in place. If you are exploring with children make sure that you keep them close at hand in order to ensure that they don’t come into contact with the scalding hot water from the geysers.
What is the El Tatio Geyser Field?
High in the Andes Mountains of northern Chile is the El Tatio geyser field. At 4,320 m above sea level, it is the second-highest geyser field in the world. It has over 500 geothermal with 80 of those being active geysers. It is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third-largest in the world. The geysers erupt to an average height of about 75 cm, with the highest eruption observed being around 6 m.
El Tatio Geyser Tour
Although we had a rental truck, we chose to join a day tour for our visit. Many companies offer day tour services in San Pedro town and although we pre-booked the excursion while still in North America, we could have just as easily waited until we got into town to book. The entrance fee to the geyser field is not included. We paid separately when we got there. We were staying right in the town of San Pedro and were picked up promptly in front of our hotel at the brutal hour of four in the morning! There were two other couples on the tour. All six of us loaded into a van for the ride into the mountains.
Pro-Tip: Due to the high altitude of the El Tatio Geyser Field, it’s recommended that a day or two be spent at the lower altitudes in the Atacama in order to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness.
The El Tatio geyser field is about a 95 km drive through desert plains and mountain switchbacks from San Pedro de Atacama. With an early start, it was still dark. The drive was supposed to last between 2-2.5 hours so I tried to rest my head on the inside of the van to get some more sleep. I’m normally a nap champion, but between a kicking baby and the bumpy roads, it was hopeless. Instead, I sat back and watched out the window as we climbed higher and higher until we were over 4000 m and on our way to the volcanic plateau.
Pro-Tip: It is possible to visit El Tatio geyser on your own without joining a tour group. You will need to make sure you have a proper high clearance vehicle, preferably with 4-wheel drive. Although there are signs from San Pedro to El Tatio, you should try and leave at the same time as the tour groups so you can easily follow them while they go up the mountains. However, the tour vans find this annoying.
El Tatio Geyser Field
As soon as we stepped off the van, it was clear from the number of people that the site was a major tourist attraction. You do not see the geysers right away, but you don’t need to walk far from the parking lot to see them. There are no boardwalks to mark safe walking paths, but there are well-worn trails to follow.
The crust of the geyser field can be thin in some spots and visitors have been known to fall into boiling hot water. We explored carefully, making sure we were kept to the trail. The thin air was bitingly cold when we arrived, and I was so glad to have dressed in layers. Although temperatures in the Atacama in the afternoon can reach 30°C, at 6 am and 4,000 m above sea level, the temperatures in the Andes were near 0°C.
The early start of the tours is to ensure that visitors arrive at the field by sunrise. As soon as we arrived we completely understood why. Early in the morning, each geyser becomes surrounded by a column of steam that condenses in the cold air. Combined with the soft light from the sun, it makes for amazing scenery.
The steam from the vents danced with the slowly appearing rays of sunlight. We were mesmerized. Although there were a lot of people at the geyser field it didn’t feel as crowded as different groups follow different trails. Although all groups do stop at the largest geyser, The Great Geysir. The steam plumes disappear as the air warms up, so getting to the field later in the day won’t offer as dramatic an experience.
El Tatio Geyser Field Hot Spring
After getting our fill of the geothermal field our tour leader led us to the final stop in our tour of the field, a large natural hot spring. Yes! It is possible to bathe in the hot geyser water in a small pool. By the time, we got to the spring many people were already enjoying the warm waters.
Pro-Tip: If you are traveling while pregnant consult with your doctor beforehand to make sure the activities you are partaking in will be safe for you and your baby.
After a couple of long days hiking, I certainly wanted to jump in and soothe my aching muscles. However, before we left for our vacation, I had consulted my doctor and although he gave me permission to visit the geysers, he strongly advised against going into the hot spring. I enjoyed watching Kevin plunge into the inviting 35°C water to combat the 0°C temperature outside. I did manage to dip my aching feet into the pool for a few minutes and it was heavenly!
To pass the time, I munched on some delicious breakfast prepared by our tour guide while the others splashed in the hot spring. Most tours come with breakfast and drinks as part of the tour package. After an hour of relaxation combined with some much-needed food, it was time to say goodbye to the El Tatio Geyser field.
Town of Machuca
Before heading back to San Pedro, there were a few other stops on the tour. We experienced the local culture and enjoyed more of the fantastic scenery around the Atacama. Our next stop would be the town of Machuca. But before we got there, we stopped at the beautiful Rio La Putana. The shallow river offered incredible reflections of the sky. Coupled with the dramatic mountain backdrop, it made for a wonderful view.
The town of Machuca is home to one family of llama herders. The whole village has about 20 houses built in the traditional method using mud, straw, cactus, and wood. There is also a small church, San Santiago Church, which is the patron saint of the village. The village thrives from the daily visits from tourists. The locals sell traditional Andean handicrafts from stalls set up on either side of the lone street running through town. Also, there is a barbecue stall that sells delicious llama anticuchos (skewered meats) and empanadas.
Cactus Valley (As experienced by Kevin)
The last stop on our tour was a hike through Cactus Valley (Los Cardones Ravine) to view a waterfall. Unfortunately, at this point in our tour, Christina’s body had decided it was time to nap. So, she opted to doze off in the van while Kevin joined the hike through the Los Cardones Ravine.
From the serene monotones of the desert landscape jumped a flash of color from bushes and flowers, all the way to the start of the cactus valley. The shift in vegetation is due to the area being fed by two merging rivers. Tall rocky hills frame the gorge and are dotted with the most perfectly shaped cactuses. The cactus here grows at a rate of 1 cm/year. With some cactuses measuring over 30 feet in height, I was looking at some pretty old cactuses! Visions of watching the roadrunner out-smarting Wile E. Coyote flashed through my mind as I made my way along the small riverbed. The cactus valley presented a wonderful splash of life in a region that otherwise offered little more than low lying bushes.
Pro-Tip: As you make your way down the river there are a few parts where you may need to jump from rock to rock. The river is not wide during the dry season, but it takes some sturdy footing to avoid slipping into the ankle-deep waters.
The gorge began to narrow and the cliff walls became steeper. Next, the unmistakable sounds of a waterfall began to permeate the air. The small river dropped suddenly away into a deeper canyon. We took turns climbing down to the pool at the bottom. The spray from the water was refreshing against the increasing heat and dryness of the desert air. As we climbed back up towards the van to head back to San Pedro de Atacama, I chose to hang back for a few minutes. I took off my shoes and splashed alone in the desert creek! It’s not often you get a desert waterfall to yourself.