An Early Morning at the Tatio Geysers
I didn’t realize this prior to traveling to Chile, but the Tatio Geysers (aka Geysers del Tatio, El Tatio Geysers) are the third largest geyser field in the world. Naively, I just knew the geysers would be an attraction that we wouldn’t want to miss in the Atacama desert, so I made sure we had slotted a time to visit.
So what’s a geyser, anyway?
Well, without getting overly technical, a geyser is a vent in the earth’s surface that intermittently ejects steam and boiling-hot water as pressure is released. They are usually found in volcanic regions where magma is flowing underground, near the earth’s surface. Or, areas containing active stratovolcanoes, just like the northern Andes in Chile. 🙂
When to Visit
We left our hotel around 6:00 AM to see the geysers. We were actually elated about leaving that early because Chile had recognized a time change just before our visit, and that meant we would luck out and get an extra hour of sleep that day.
If you’re not a morning person, you might be disappointed to find that all of the tour companies will schedule early tours to the Tatio Geysers. That’s because there’s really no point in going to see them in the afternoon. The tall steam columns produced by the geysers are one of their most appealing characteristics, and that steam is a lot less visible without the stark temperature difference later on in the day.
At over 14,000 ft elevation, it gets really, really cold first thing in the morning. In hindsight, I probably should have packed some better winter gear. The actual temperature wasn’t too far from the freezing point, but it felt much colder. The weather forecast can definitely be deceiving. Our strategy is always to dress in layers. For reference, I wore lighter thermal tops & bottoms under my normal hiking clothes and wore my pack-able down coat for warmth with a raincoat as an outer shell to block the wind. All of that coupled with a hat and gloves and I survived OK but was still a little too cold for comfort.
The drastic temperature difference between the boiling water and the cold air produces another neat effect: you’re able to watch the water droplets freeze as they shoot into the air. Can you see the tiny ice chunks?
Altitude sickness is a pretty common concern when traveling to the Tatio Geysers, and rightfully so. At an estimated 14,173 ft they are nearly as tall as Seattle’s own Mt. Rainier (14,411 ft). Let that sink in for just a second…
This was the highest point we’ve reached to-date and I admit we were a little anxious to see how we would fare. Luckily though, neither one of us experienced any symptoms. That said, we did schedule our trip to the geysers towards the end of our time in the Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama is at roughly 8,000 ft, so just by staying in town for a few nights our bodies had some time to acclimate from our normal life, which is practically at sea-level.
Acclimation is key, but staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol the night before can significantly reduce your chances of altitude sickness.
Interesting & Nerdy Facts:
(Because let’s face it – as a mathematician and a scientist, we just can’t help ourselves!)
- The Tatio Geysers are the highest geysers in the world in terms of their elevation. Yellowstone National Park is home to both the largest field of geysers as well as the tallest geyser in the world.
- Geysers can erupt at random or predictable intervals.
- Geysers are considered a temporary phenomenon and can become inactive after extended periods of time.
- While geysers might seem like an inhabitable place, there are actually extremophile microorganisms living there. These microorganisms are extremely valuable to scientists who study the conditions required to sustain life on other planets (photos below).
- The word “geyser” has Icelandic origins and literally means “to gush”.
After taking our time exploring the geysers, we indulged in another beautifully curated meal from Sorbac. They outdid themselves again by providing freshly baked bread from La Franchuteria, scrambled eggs, assorted jams & spreads, along with hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. We could really get used to this luxurious travel style! 😉
With full bellies and warm spirits, we left the geysers behind to embark on a hike through the Guatin Canyon. This roughly 2.5-mile hike would lead us through the canyon to the Puritama Hot Springs, where we would be rewarded with lunch and a relaxing soak. The hot springs were particularly pleasant after the frigid morning up at the geysers!
Of course, the drive from the geysers to the Guatin Canyon entrance was beautifully scenic. (Although, if I’m being honest, I don’t think there’s a single location in the Atacama desert where you won’t be overwhelmed by the spectacular landscape around you…) There were plenty of photo opportunities along the way. My favorite was a pull-off to see a particularly breathtaking mountain range with an active volcano. Can you spot the smoke plume in the photos below?
Just before arriving at the canyon, we also stopped to see the village of Machuca, where you could purchase a llama kabob from the locals. We weren’t brave enough to try one though!
Tour: Full Day XL – Geiser Tatio + Trekking de Guatín + Termas de Puritama
Total Time: 10-12 hours
Activity Intensity: Moderate
- I’d rate the Tatio Geysers portion of the trip as very easy, but the hiking through the Guatin Canyon as moderate.
- Guatin Canyon hike:
- Distance: ~ 2.5 miles
- Elevation gain: ~ 1,500 ft
- Altitude: starting near 10,500 ft
- Total time: about 2 hours
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