Without doubt, Chile has some pretty stunning landscapes, from the jagged peaks of Patagonia in the south to the altiplano deserts in the north- it’s easily one of the most geographically varied countries in the world. In its northern regions, landscapes generally tend to be desert characterised by less sand and more rock, salt flats and altiplano grasslands and volcanoes which stretch from the Andes right into the Pacific Ocean. Oh, and did I mention? The north of Chile is also home to the Tatio Geysers, the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere- something you simply have to see for yourself. Keep reading for all the information you need for a self-drive tour of Geyser del Tatio.
The Atacama desert and salt flats lie about 100km from the city of Calama and it’s from the town of San Pedro that you can explore these tremendous, otherworldly, varied landscapes. One of the highlights of the area, and trust me, there are many is Geyser del Tatio, a high altitude valley full of spectacular, bubbling and fuming geysers, all powered by the geothermal pools beneath the earth. In the early morning, as the sun comes up over the mountains casting soft, orangey-pink hues over the valley it’s a sight you simply don’t want to miss when in the area.
WHAT ARE THE TATIO GEYSERS?
El Tatio is a high altitude field full of more than 80 geysers. It’s the third larger geyser field in the world and the largest in the southern hemisphere. But what is a geyser you ask? A geyser is formed when cold underground rivers and streams come into contact with hot volcanic rock beneath the surface of the earth, causing the water and steam to rise to the surface. At the Tatio Geyser field, you can see many pockets of bubbling water, and steaming gases as far as the eye can see.
HOW TO GET THERE?
To visit the geysers you have two options. Self-drive or take an organised tour. There are pros and cons to both and your decision will probably also depend on how you are exploring the rest of the area.
Tours: All tours can be arranged even up to the day before in San Pedro de Atacama. Here you’ll find many companies that offer a very similar service and price. Tours normally include your transportation, breakfast and sometimes the entrance ticket (if not bare in mind the ticket is $10,000CLP pp). Tours depart San Pedro at about 4 am and make their way in the darkness to the Geysers del Tatio. You’ll arrive for sunrise and see all the beautiful colours being reflected in the valley and the giant plumes of steam gushing out of the fumaroles below. While taking a tour is very easy, the main disadvantage is that every tour of Geyser del Tatio arrives here for sunrise. You’ll be sharing the area with many other people and at high season it can get very busy.
Self-driving: Rent a car and explore the whole area as well as the geysers. The drive north from San Pedro is an easy one and you don’t need a 4×4, just sometimes it gets a bit bumpy. With a self-driving tour to Geyser del Tatio, you can choose the time you visit and this is perfect if you don’t fancy getting up at 4 am. Just bear in mind that as the day goes on the plumes of steam get weaker and weaker as the air temperature warms up. Enjoying the area after the morning tourist rush had left gave us the chance to experience the silence, serenity and magnitude of the valley.
For my guide on Self-Drive or Tours? Which is Better in the Atacama Desert? click here.
TOP TIPS FOR VISITING TATIO GEYSERS
↠ It will be cold – bring warm clothes. At this altitude, even in summer, the temperature drops down to freezing or below at night. When visiting for sunrise it was -15°C and we were most grateful for every single layer we bought.
↠ The geysers and located at an altitude of 4,320m,(14,173ft) one of the highest points in the area. To avoid altitude sickness visit the geysers on the last morning of your itinerary. This will give you the maximum amount of time to acclimatize in lower areas first.
↠ Try not to visit after 11 am, by this time the geysers are pretty weak and it’s probably not worth it.
↠ Bring your swimwear and a towel! In the valley, there are some hot springs in which you can bathe so if you fancy a dip in the warm geothermal pools, don’t forget your swimwear.
↠ Look out for vicuñas and Andean foxes, especially if you come a little later. Once most people have left the animals come down into the valley to scavenge for leftover breakfast. They aren’t afraid to come too close so keep your eyes peeled.
↠ If you can, rent a 4×4 or a car with a higher clearance. You don’t need one but the road isn’t paved for the most part and it will be more comfortable.
THINGS TO DO AND SEE
The Geysers – The main attraction here are the fuming geysers expelling all that energy into the sky. Follow the paths around the biggest craters which are filled with bubbling volcanic water and enjoy the effects of the light in the smoke-filled sky. There are quite a few geysers of all different sizes which you can walk around and marvel at.
Bathe in the hot springs– One part of the valley has been dedicated to a man-made pool, heated by the bubbling geothermal activity below. Here you have cubicles to change and leave your clothes to go for a dip. The mineral content of these waters has great effects on tired muscles and improving circulation. Why not give it a try?
Check out the surrounding valley– While you probably can’t drive around the valley itself, there seem to be no roads, you can give it a good look. Once it gets lighter you’ll be able to notice all the shapes and curves of the mountain peaks and the plains around the geysers. You may even to spot some vicuñas.
Visit the surrounding villages – Ok, not something to do at the geysers themselves but if you are self-driving why not stop off at some villages afterwards. Nearby is the village of Caspana, where you can experience local Atacamanian life and customs and visit the cute little church and village square. Following the road back to San Pedro, you can also stop at the village of Machuca (tours to this too). This village has an abandoned one-horse town vibe to it and was quite eery when we visited with nobody around. Walk around and don’t forget to check out the little church on the hill.
Stop for the wildlife at the lakes and rivers- You’ll pass many different rivers and watering holes on your way to and from the Tatio Geysers. Make sure to look out for all the animals that call these places home. You can expect to see flamingoes, vicuñas, ducks and many species of birds, foxes and vizcachas (Andean rabbit).
Visit Termas de Puritana– On your way back to San Pedro, you’ll no doubt see signs for these hot springs. While the entrance fee is a steep $15,000CLP, inside you’ll be able to relax in various pools of different temperatures with some of the most stunning desert mountains and lush green reeds all around you. The Puritama river goes right past these hot springs.
Stop at Quebrada Escalera- The last note-worthy site on the way back to San Pedro is this amazing canyon, you’ll no doubt see from the side of the road. Deep below, you’ll notice the dried-up riverbed and this canyon is one of the deepest in the area. Admire this insane red coloured rock formations and the dramatic curves and lines.
Do you have any questions about your self-driving tour to Geyser del Tatio? Please leave your questions and comments below.
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