It’s 4.30AM when we step out of our hotel to be picked up – by now, we’ve grown used to the magnificent starry skies at San Pedro de Atacama, but not any less impressed by them.
As we step into the bus, our guide Cristian is nice enough to suggest we recline our seats and gives us a blanket to keep ourselves warm – it is very cold at this time of night. It is incredible how temperatures vary between such extremes here throughout the day, and we are about to experience that more than ever: from negative temperatures to sweating in just a few hours!
We have a 2 hour ride ahead and we might as well rest during that time. Traveling to El Tatio Geysers involves zig zagging in poorly maintained roads, up the mountain, until we reach 4300m above sea level.
It’s break of dawn when we finally make it to El Tatio. Getting out of the bus requires both heavy duty equipment and courage: it’s -11 C! I have never been in such cold temperatures, not even when we visited the Antarctic region in Southern Chile. Tucked between mountain peaks and at such high altitude, El Tatio has its own micro-climate, where the freezing temperatures contrast with the steam that comes out of the geysers.
We came out of the bus after a few minutes by the door trying to acclimatize – it is a complete thermal shock to come out and no mental anticipation can prepare you for this kind of negative temperature.
Outside, the geysers put up a show best enjoyed by dawn, before the sun fully comes up. As this is the time of the day when temperatures are lower, the steam that comes out of the geysers is as powerful as it tends to get, due to the vaporization that the underground hot water undertakes when meeting the cold air outside. The scenery looks like out of a fairy tale… with a dark side.
After the cold times, one can enjoy a dip in a natural thermal pool with waters around 30C. Stripping off at -11C requires an amount of guts that we manage to gather but the recompense is worth it!
It’s common knowledge that cold weather makes you hungry, and ohhh… can we vouch for that! Fortunately, the guys from Grado 10 have it all covered. Their overland includes a kitchen and grill where they prepare fresh meals. Apart from the so needed hot beverage we can enjoy pancakes and grilled sandwiches, all made on the spot! Having warm pancaked outdoors, when the temperature is below zero, is beyond comforting!
Although this tour is called “El Tatio Geysers” it includes visits to other spots on the way back to town, such as Machuca (a very old village now turned into touristic spot), a pond where one can enjoy birdwatching and a field with ancient huge cacti. The biggest cactus spotted in there is more than 7 meters tall – considering an average cactus usually grows 1 cm a year, you can imagine how long it’s been since this one has been there!
By the valley of cactus, we also learn that stones can be put vertical on top of each other, as our guide shows: apparently the fact that they are high on carbon content, makes them try to reach for other stones below them, just as plants’ roots stick to the ground. Cristian’s demonstration is pretty impressive, as it’s not easy to place them vertically on top of each other anyway – we tried and didn’t really succeed. Not even with tiny stones!
This was our last tour with Grado 10 and after 3 days of non-stop activities and adventure, we left San Pedro de Atacama with the feeling that we really made the most out of it!
Whenever you visit the Atacama region, you’ll see that it is difficult to choose a tour company to book your activities with. The main roads in town are filled with tour agencies offering similar tours, but keep in mind that just because you go to the same places, it doesn’t mean you can’t experience them in different ways.
And this is why you should go with Grado 10, unless you wouldn’t want to be part of a cool, adventurous and fun-filled tour! But you do, don’t you? :)
More info and bookings:
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
El Tatio Geysers + Cactus Walk tour: CLP 25,000 / USD53 (includes breakfast)