Visiting El Tatio Geysers at Sunrise
It was just before sunrise at over 14,000’ elevation and we were just a few miles from the Bolivian border. A middle aged Chilean man leaned through our van window to point at our map, stabbing at it repeatedly with his finger. “Geyser, geyser, geyser. Geyser, geyser, geyser.” His breath making vapor clouds around his head in the cold air. He was showing us the lay of the land and where to find the countless spouts of the El Tatio Geysers in Chile. It was certainly not his first day on the job.
El Tatio is a geyser field that sits at just over 14,000 feet above sea level. With over 80 geysers scattered around the area, it makes El Tatio not only the highest geyser field in the world, but the third largest. It was definitely on my Chile bucket list.
It was our last full day in the Atacama Desert region and we’d saved the El Tatio Geysers for our last hurrah. Since the elevation is high it was recommended that we give ourselves a couple of days to acclimate to the almost 8,000’ elevation of San Pedro de Atacama before venturing even higher into the Andes. Altitude sickness is real and I wanted no part of it, so the last sunrise before flying back to Santiago it was.
Sunrise is when the geysers are most active and visible due to the difference between air and water temperature so that’s the best time to see them. Of course, this means a very early rise and a dark drive to the geyser field two hours north of San Pedro. We’d camped in our super cool Wicked campervan the night before at the Cañon de Guatín (Cactus Canyon) to get a jump on the morning traffic. Though it was only 30min from San Pedro that was 30min later we could set our alarm. Trust me, the difference between 4am and 4:30am is substantial. I don’t recommend camping the night before in the El Tatio area as it gets quite cold and the high elevation can do funny things to you if you’re not used to it.
The pitch black drive up to the El Tatio Geysers is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The twisting road almost tries to lull you to sleep with its back and forth but the rattling of the campervan on the washboard roads puts paid to any notion of dozing. More than once we saw a sign warning of “curvas peligrosas” – dangerous turns. I could appreciate the scenery on the drive back down mid-morning but I’m glad I wasn’t aware of those sheer drop offs or just how hairpin the hairpin turns were on the way up.
We were one of the first in when the gate opened at 6am and after picking up our passes (CLP$ 10.000 / $17.80 CAD per person – cash only) we were given a map of the geyser field and met our friend at the entrance. We understood quickly why he was so laissez-faire in showing us the map – there was only one road in and the geysers were everywhere and impossible to miss.
I highly recommend having your own vehicle if possible. It’s nice to be one of the first there before the buses and shuttle vans arrive from San Pedro, loaded with people. You might only get 20 minutes with a handful of people but it’s 20 magical minutes.
Exploring the Geysers
Steam was billowing up from the ground in dozens of places creating columns of mist that reached into the sky and we could begin to see in the early morning light as we parked the van and got out to explore on foot.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that you’ll want to pack a hat and mitts and a warm coat. The air temperature was hovering around freezing before the sun came up and despite my layers and wool socks I did more than a bit of stamping to keep feeling in my toes until the sun crept over the mountains. So vacuum seal it if you need to make space in your suitcase or buy some alpaca woolens at the market in San Pedro but don’t show up at the geysers without something warm.
You’ll also want to pack sunscreen and a swimsuit, but more on that in a minute.
The steam coming out of a geyser can reach temperatures of over 90 °C so be sure to keep your distance. Each spout has a ring of coloured stones that you should stay on the other side of. Some spouts may only issue small wisps of steam from holes the diameter of a can of Pringles while others shoot jets of water 15 feet in the air and spew enough mist to shroud everyone standing by the rock wall, watching Mother Nature at work. Some are so steady and insistent like a kettle that’s been left on the stove. Others are more temperamental and only seem to go off when you’re not looking.
We spent about an hour geyser hopping, trying to see them all before the sun’s bright rays filled the plateau and put the steam back to bed for another day. But with the increased warmth and brightness came the vincunas. Off in the distance we could see a handful of small camelids, the wild ancestor of the alpaca. One brave one kept getting closer to us and eventually bounded across the path in front of us, stopping next to a geyser and turning to wait for his friends to follow him. It was exceptionally cool to get a chance to see wildlife like that so close.
Bathing in the Hot Springs
One of the other geological features of El Tatio is the hot springs, which is perfect for a little bathing before making the drive back to San Pedro. While many of the van tour groups were setting up for their breakfast buffets we scooted over to the hot spring. There are a handful of change rooms next to the springs, if you don’t have a camper van, where you can get out of your merino wool and into your two-piece. Even though the air had warmed up considerably with the morning sun, it still had a nip to it. Thankfully, the water was warm.
The spring has a deeper end which was cooler and then a very shallow end which was the toastiest. If you see photos of people in this end and they’re in up to their shoulders or neck, know that they’re sitting on their butts to avoid the chilly air – the water was only about 2 feet deep. If you brushed aside some of the rocks and sand there you could feel how hot the ground was under the water. Almost too hot to touch. We spent all of our time trying to stay covered by the water while people in big, puffy coats stood around near the edge. Quite the juxtaposition.
Sampling Llama in Machuca
We were starting to feel some of the effects of the altitude by this point in the morning and decided it was time to head back down the mountains to San Pedro. At almost the halfway point we stopped at the small settlement of Machuca. The village is a single road with a dozen or so traditionally built buildings and a church. The people who live there make their living selling food to tourists like us. There was a man outside manning two big grills lined with skewers of llama meat. They also served up two kinds of cheese empanada: cow and goat cheese. Of course we got one of everything. I wish we had gotten two llama skewers. The meat was a bit like a well-marinated beef. Very tender and juicy without too much of a game-y taste. Not only are llamas cute, they’re delicious!
Full of queso empanadas and llama it was back to San Pedro to return our campervan and hop a shuttle van to the airport in Calama, ending a perfect last morning in the Atacama Desert.
Tips for visiting El Tatio Geysers
- Entrance is cash only – CLP$ 10.000 per person
- Use the washroom at the entrance, there are no others
- Arrive for sunrise – gate opens at 6am
- Pack warm and dress in layers – the temperature will be at or below freezing when you get there but warms up as the sun gets higher in the sky
- Bring a swimsuit and towel for the hot springs
- Bring sunscreen and lots of water – the high elevation and dry air can wreak havoc so be prepared
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