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. The steam from the geysers is most active and visible at dawn, so you need to be there before sunrise.
You must also be prepared to be very 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, in Chile’s Atacama Desert, 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.
We were picked up from our hotel at 4.30 AM. 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; while overhead were 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. 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 we did encounter other people it wasn’t crowded enough to spoil the experience. And after a few attempts to take people-free photos I soon realised that their silhouetted shapes tended to enhance my images rather than spoil them!
But before we even set off on our walk we had a safety briefing. You can see in some of my photos that the geysers are surrounded by stones; these 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.
The other safety risk relates to the altitude; so our guide briefed us on the possible symptoms of altitude sickness too. Although I’ve been prone to headaches at altitude at times in the past, this morning I had no problems, for which I was grateful.
Once in among the geysers our guide led us on a winding path between some of them. As we walked he explained 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; 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. 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.
This was our cue to head back to the parking area. There 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.
The highest geyser
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 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. We 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. We were fortunate to see this one in action. 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 journey back
The time passed quickly and soon we had to return to the bus to meet up with the bathers. Some of them seemed to have really enjoyed the experience and others less so! I would have loved to have stayed longer even though I knew that with daylight the drama of the scene would diminish. But the drive back revealed the full beauty of the road we had driven, with some breath-taking scenery to rival the sight of the geysers themselves.
I visited the Atacama Desert in 2016