A harsh metallic half-buzzer half-ring sound abruptly broke our sleep. It took a few moments for the fog and confusion of deep sleep to pass before we realized it was the room phone ringing. It was 4:30 in the
morning and the phone brought our wake up call. Other than feeling like we had had no sleep at all, there was unfortunately no legitimate reason for staying in bed further. We got up. After dressing and organizing our gang of bags for the hotel staff to remove, we moved through cold air and under the pure black, star-studded sky of the desert night to meet Salvador in the lobby.
Our morning’s destination was El Tatio Geysers or to the locals, Los Géiseres del Tatio. The geyser basin sits near 4,300 meters (13,760 feet). Tierra Atacama required us to acclimatize at the 7,900 feet altitude of San Pedro de Atacama for three nights before our visit. Further, they suggested that no alcohol, caffeine, or narcotics be consumed on the morning of the trip. I took the advice to heart. Becky, ever the rebel, consumed at least one of the three items in taking yet another Nescafe suspension. Without a blood test, it was difficult to tell whether she went for the trifecta. I certainly couldn’t tell for sure from her behavior.
By 5:05 am, we squeezed ourselves with our Michelin Man layers of clothing into the compact, four-door four-wheel drive pick-up truck. Climbing out of San Pedro the outside air temperatures quickly dropped into the low twenties. With the truck’s windows fogging, we stopped and stepped out to look at the stars in the penetrating, bitter cold and wind of the predawn morning. Our guide Salvador verified the location of the Southern Cross amongst the bright white band of the Milky Way. He was the first Chilean we had met who could do so.
When we neared 14,000 feet, the sky had developed its predawn glow. The pick-up truck took us past a lush, cropped grass meadow that was juxtaposed against the desiccated low hills. Now covered with thin ice, the meadow’s pond was fed by water from the high mountains in the distance. In the low light, all the colors were shades of gray.
Our route reached 4,589 meters or 15,056 feet in elevation before descending to the geyser basin. This is the highest on land that we had ever been. We had noticed a wooden box containing supplemental oxygen tucked between the driver and passenger seats of the pick-up. Though we were breathing heavily and a little light headed, it didn’t seem like we would need it. Then again, you always think that when you are hypoxic. Tierra Atacama also offers excursions to climb volcanoes. With these, the guests reach altitudes near 18,000 feet. Unfortunately, we were not going to be in San Pedro long enough to acclimatize to the thin air to allow a volcano climb on this visit. It is something we will have to do in the future.
From the high point on the road, we descended to the geyser basin. Our trip from Tierra Atacama took about an hour and forty minutes. As we arrived at the geyser basin, the hilltops, if you can call small peaks sitting over 15,000 feet as hills, were spot lighted by the rising sun. Still in shadows, the extent of the geyser basin was visible by the plumes of steam rising in the area. Los Géiseres del Tatio is the third largest geyser basin in the world. It was significantly larger than I had managed.
Out of the truck, we set about exploring the basin in the rapidly changing light. Visits to El Tatio are recommended for the morning as the steam plumes are more pronounced. Perhaps that is true enough, but there is a reason for the steam to be more evident. It was cold, very cold.
When we loaded into the truck at Tierra Atacama for the morning’s excursion, I asked Becky, “Did you pack the wind pants?”
I was referring to the light wind and rain shell meant to cover the pants. Becky answered, somewhat annoyed at the question, “Yes.”
Fortunately, at the basin, there was little wind. Nevertheless, even dressed as want to be Michelin Men, we were still a layer or two short of comfort. Though they wouldn’t be sufficient, the wind pants would surely help against the cold, so I asked Becky, “Could I have my wind pants?”
“I don’t have them,” she replied.
Now, I was confused. Perhaps it was the altitude. After seeing my look, Becky continued, “I packed them in the luggage.”
I had learned enough to keep any thoughts I had to myself at this point.
Unlike the thermal areas in Yellowstone or New Zealand, El Tatio’s geyser basin had minimal walkways and paths. The guests pretty much walked where they wanted and were admonished to be aware of the thin crust and scalding hot water. One hot pool was even configured with a swimming pool ladder allowing visitors to take a dip. The water must have felt good. That is, if you could survive the cold in your bathing suit long enough to get there. With the freedom to move where we wanted, we relocated down wind of the rising steam plums and warmed in the heat. A little later we were told stories of multiple people dying in the hot water at the basin.
“Tragic,” Salvador said.
I wondered whether the people who died were cold, also. It seemed that most of the fatalities occurred in a particular spot. That spot looked like it was particularly warm to me.
Not long later the sun moved above the horizon. You know all those colors they say you can’t find in nature? I’m pretty sure they didn’t look for them in the geyser basins. In the sunlight, the glossy fluorescent oranges and yellows under the thermal water lit up. With the high altitude sunlight also came warmth. Soon, the wind pants were forgotten, the bulbous layers of clothes were peeled off, and we moved about in thin shirt comfort.
The geysers in El Tatio’s basin don’t erupt with the scale of the geysers at Yellowstone. Instead, during the frequent bursts, the water reaches 8 to 10 feet in height. Even without the dramatic water works, Los Géiseres del Tatio, with its colors and steam set against the back drop of the dry, snow dusted high Andean volcanoes, is impressively otherworldly.
As Salvador and the driver went to prepare breakfast for us, we wandered aimlessly about taking pictures in the ever-changing light. I took more pictures, nearly a thousand, on this day than I ever have. The ten-minute warning for breakfast that Salvador had issued was surely exceeded when I returned to the vehicles. Breakfast was basic and welcomed. As unsatisfying as always, the Nescafe at least seemed to serve a purpose in the high altitude and remote location of El Tatio.
After breakfast, Salvador and the driver waited patiently for us to finish our explorations of the basin. When we were back in the truck, we moved down the hill now in the full morning light. We saw what we had missed in the dark of the mornings climb. Herds of vicuna grazed where there was grass. Vicunas are camelids related to the guanacos in Torres del Paine, llamas, and alpacas. Mostly they look like small guanacos. That’s not real helpful unless you have been looking at a lot of guanacos recently. There were also flightless rheas or Ñandús, the Andean equivalent to an ostrich. Unlike the vicunas, the birds were grazing where little was growing. At first, it looked like nothing growing, but on closer inspection, there were small green plants, maybe three inches across and hugging the ground, growing with the density of one per 25 square feet. It was hard to see how the rheas could survive eating such small plants so widely spaced.
Further down, in view of the active crater of Volcan Putana, we passed oasis of the meadow we had seen on the way up. The ice in the pond was quickly melting and the lush meadow teamed with activity. With little transition, the green of the meadow and the reddish pale of the desert met defining the edge of life.
Our driver took a fork in the road for a different route back to the hotel than we used on our way up. Above the small village of Machuca, another meadow was being used as a pasture for llamas. With distinctive colorful ribbons attached around their heads, the beasts were cute and cuddly, though we didn’t give cuddling a try. Instead, further down the hill in Machuca, we ate them. The only store in the village grilled llama meat and served it to the passing tour groups along with the traditional herbal tasting coca tea. Coca leaves are sold openly in the market in San Pedro de Atacama as they are traditional to the area with its trade connections to nearby Peru. Further south in Santiago, we are told, the leaves are not sold. The well-seasoned llama meat we tasted was lean with a slight gamey flavor. We would have had another, if we could have.
Back in the truck, we were moving down the hill again. We were at a much lower altitude now. Soon we passed by the entrance to the Guatin Valley trail that we had visited on our first Atacama excursion and were back at hotel’s compound with just enough time for lunch with another Spanish lessen from the staff (we weren’t making much progress) and a massage before our shuttle to the Calama Airport. As we waited in the great room of the hotel, the father that we road down with from the airport on our arrival was finishing up work on his pictures. He had the big boy camera and a dedicated Photoshop assistant.
About the assistant I said, “There’s where all the magic happens.”
The photographer was a little taken back. “Actually,” he said, “My photos don’t require much “Photoshopping” to be done. The assistant nodded with agreement. “You’ve seen the proofs,” he finished to me.
Indeed I had, and they were good. The photographer and his crew, complete with model and make-up artist, were at Tierra Atacama doing a fashion shoot for a European clothing catalog. (Who says business travel is bad!) The proofs looked like they had been cropped from a fashion magazine.
“Are you in the business?” he asked me.
“No.” I sheepishly replied regretting that I had made the comment in the first place and thinking there goes the “If only I just had the magic of a good Photoshop Assistant excuse.”
Both the photographer and his assistant were friendly and asked about the excursions we had been on. I told them about the places we had been and especially El Tatio. The photographer said he was thinking of taking his crew up to El Tatio the next morning.
“I’ll take a few pictures, too,” he tossed in almost as an afterthought.
“If I’d known that, maybe I’d have left my camera behind,” I thought but didn’t say. Then I smiled as the image of his surprisingly short but skinny model wrapped up like a Michelin Man drinking Nescafe in the cold morning of the El Tatio Geyser Basin. It would be the great equalizer.
Just when we felt like we were settling in for the day, it was time to leave. Along with the other departing patrons, we loaded into a van and headed along the particularly dangerous stretch of road from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama. Our driver seemed to be tired and was weaving and losing lane discipline. As passengers, Becky and I distracted our selves by counting the number of roadside shrines to motorists lost. It was explained to us that the small house memorials are there to hold the souls of those lost on the road until they are called to heaven. For those alive, the little houses keep the spirits from haunting them. At twenty-five shrines, we stopped counting. This wasn’t a good distraction from our driver’s meanderings on the road.
At the airport, we stood in our last LAN line (I had to say that!). Our flight to Santiago was unusually uneventful. With a long drive to our next destination and a late arrival in Santiago, we chose to stay at the extremely comfortable and convenient airport Holiday Inn. Despite the long and busy day, we were wired.
“Must have been the coca tea,” I said.
Becky just nodded. Sleep would be easy for her. She could fall asleep in the middle of a hurricane even if she ate a whole coca tree. Or so it seemed to me.