We have mixed feelings about this place. If you have ever visited Yellowstone National Park, El Tatio Geysers may leave you feeling a little let down – at least at first. What started out as the most miserable tour we took in the Atacama Desert turned out to be a wonderful experience that we recommend experiencing for yourself.
Early morning is the best time to see the steam
The El Tatio Geysers are the highest altitude geysers in the world. They sit at 4,320 meters or 14,173 feet. With over 80 active geysers it is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere. Yes, that alone is impressive. However, the geysers do not blow high. It’s basically a lot of bubbling water and steam coming out of the earth. The landscape is impressive though. Especially at that altitude. Maybe since we had been in the Atacama for so long we were taking that for granted! As we look back at our pictures that sure isn’t the case today.
The landscape never ceases to impress
Because the geysers are most visible in the morning, you have to leave your hotel between 4a.m. and 4:30a.m. Then you have an hour and a half drive down bumpy roads in the dark – so forget sleeping on the bus. Dale and I were lucky enough to get picked up last so he had to cram into a middle seat in the back row of the bus and I had to sit next to a guy from France that did the man-spread the entire way and smelled of clove cigarettes. This guy had no sense of personal space.
So it was a miserable drive. Once we arrived we were greeted with breakfast that consisted of stale bread, jam, cheese, prepackaged cookies, and instant coffee. So you can see why Dale and I were so grumpy and negative from the beginning of this trip. I loathe instant coffee. This hatred of instant coffee of course made travel in Chile difficult at times!
To add to the discomfort, it is extremely cold at this elevation. So cold that when we arrived we got off the bus and got back on again to try and warm up a little. We had jackets on, and I had gloves and a hat. I dressed in many layers. I was still freezing. We were told that we were lucky because this morning was warmer than most.
And this was after the sun rose and warmed up a little!
And finally, this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Atacama Desert. So while it wasn’t that crowded when we went around Christmas (a few hundred tourists), we hear it gets packed here. If you don’t like large crowds of tourists, you will most likely not enjoy this tour.
Now here is where we have the mixed emotions. Unlike Yellowstone National Park, you can get up close to the geysers. Now is this safe? Probably not. A few tourists have died here over the years. They fell through the thin crust and landed in boiling hot water. That does not sound like fun. Our guide did warn us about areas to avoid walking, however there were areas we stood on that had cracks where hot steam came out. We were standing on thin crust while she talked to us. The tour guide had us place our hands on the warm ground and explained the area in great detail. I enjoyed being able to involve most of my senses in the experience. You can see, touch, and smell the steam and heat coming off the geysers. You can’t get that at Yellowstone!
So as we started to move around, from geyser to geyser, taking photos, listening to the guide, our moods began to improve. Maybe it was the crappy instant coffee starting to work, but we actually began to enjoy the tour and the beauty of the area.
The tour then took us to another geyser field where there was a hot spring for bathing. Being grumpy, non-morning people we felt the water first and decided against bathing. It was lukewarm at best. Not worth removing layers of warm clothing to soak in barely warm water and then run to the changing room wet in the frigid air. No thanks! Many people did go for a soak. They didn’t look like they were having much fun though. And they were surrounded by clothed people taking their photos and checking them out in swim suits. It seemed a little creepy.
The drive back from El Tatio Geysers was beautiful. Being able to see the amazing landscape in the day hours was wonderful. We also made several stops to look at different wildlife native to the area.
We also stopped and looked at the cacti that the Indians have many uses for, including roofing. Our guide explained that the cacti here grows around 1 centimeter per year. So the tall cacti are old!
This one’s been around a while
Finally we went to a small Indian Village tourist trap. No one actually lives there anymore. We began to grumble once again. They were selling overpriced llama meat to hordes of tourists as well as some tasty empanadas. We skipped the llama meat. I just couldn’t do it. It seemed too touristy to me, and llamas are cute. We walked around and took a few photos when we saw a lady with a baby llama. I think that was the highlight of my day. She let me pet and take photos with her llama. The llama’s fur was so soft!
Old church above the village
In conclusion we decided this tour is not a great tour for people that hate getting up early (Elizabeth and Dale), but it was worth the pain and suffering! Now that the suffering is over we are glad we did it. We wouldn’t do this tour again, but we made some great memories.
Dress warm. It is cold at this elevation. Wear a hat, gloves, jacket, and long pants. I had on many layers and a puffy jacket and was still cold. Dale forgot to bring his gloves and left them in the hotel room. He doesn’t get cold easy and he was wishing he brought his gloves.
Schedule this tour towards the end of your trip to the Atacama Desert. This is one of the highest elevation tours. You will want to give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude. Also, do not run or jump while at the geysers. Walk slowly until you know how your body will respond to this altitude.
Drink a lot of water. Sometimes people mistake altitude sickness for dehydration. I’m not sure, but after we descended I had a headache for a few hours. I did not drink enough water. The problem is you must drink a lot of water in the desert, but on all the tours there are only a few stops to use a restroom. In fact, once we arrived we were told we would not have another chance to use the restroom for 3.5 hours! So I limited how much I drank, because on a previous tour I was in some serious pain because there was nowhere to pee (at least not in the flat desert for a woman!). Maybe that is why so many people were bathing in the lukewarm spring!
Bring some snacks and water. You may have a tour that offers a decent breakfast and get lucky. However, if you end up with stale bread and a stingy tour guide telling the group that each person can only have one piece you will be happy to have your own snacks and drinks!
Finally, try not to be a miserable and hateful person in the morning like we were. Ha ha! Thank goodness we didn’t turn on each other! We are now happy we did this tour as it turned out to be a lot of fun once we got over our morning grumpiness.