Important note about my frequent travel: these are my experiences and observations I share eagerly and enthusiastically. I receive no compensation in cash/kind/discounts, etc. of any kind from any business/locations I’ve visited. None of the businesses paid for my travel expenses or offered any free services.
When we signed up for the El Tatio Geyser tour with Luna Dorada they told us the driver will pick us up at our hostel between 5 and 5:30 am. We woke up super early and were ready by 5 am. When no one came to pick us up by 5:40 am, we got concerned and called the tour company. They said the driver is late and should arrive in 5 minutes. We eventually got picked up at 6:03 am. We were one of the last people to be picked up before going to the geyser. I guess that’s why it took them so long to get to our hostel.
While we waited to be picked up, I drank some mate tea to help with altitude sickness. The geyser is at 14,170 feet (4,320 meters) elevation. It’s also why we waited so long before going on this tour. We had a rental car so we could have driven to the geyser ourselves but I decided against it. The geysers are most active at sunrise. The drive to the geyser from San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA) is about an hour and half long. Driving there ourselves would mean waking up well before sunrise and driving in the dark through narrow, curvy roads.
The drive is definitely manageable with a 2 wheel drive. The road conditions are perfectly fine but I felt it’s slightly risky to drive so early in the morning. I wasn’t sure if I’d be awake enough to do it. I also wanted the option to either take a nap or look out the window and enjoy the view while someone more familiar with the roads drove. The tour also didn’t cost a lot. If you go with a tour group than try to get a seat behind the driver in the van. You’ll have much better views on the return trip.
There were a total of 15 people in the mini bus. Other companies had options which included only 8 people per group but they were a bit more expensive. There isn’t much to look at during the drive to the geyser because it’s dark. Once we arrived at the geysers, we paid 10,000 CLP (about $15 USD) per person entrance fee. There are clean bathrooms at the entrance. The temperature at the geyser was ~10 degree F (-12 degree C) so dress warm and in layers. I had at least 4 layers of sweaters/jackets and two pairs of socks on.
As soon as we got out of the mini-bus, we saw a few geysers. Seeing the geysers up close and personal for the first time is an unforgettable experience. The sun was just rising as we got to El Tatio. Once everyone was done paying the entrance fee and using the bathroom we drove to another parking lot. The geysers there are bigger than the ones at the entrance. We went on a short trail surrounding the geysers. We walked around looking at the hot, bubbling water rising up from the ground. Short video of water bubbling over.
You can actually see boiling hot water bubbling over but just a few feet away is a small stream of lukewarm water. There is a hot spring you can sit/swim in for a bit. There were clean changing rooms and bathrooms near the hot spring. Many people had come prepared in their bathing suits and got in the hot spring. I didn’t get in the water because it was way too cold for me to take my layers off and also because I’d forgotten my bathing suit. The water also didn’t feel as hot as I would’ve expected. It was slightly warm but not warm enough for me to get in.
El Tatio is the 3rd largest geyser in the world and the largest geyser in South America. It’s more active in winter than in summer. If you’ve visited the largest geyser in the world, Yellowstone, than you won’t be very impressed with El Tatio. When we arrived at sunrise, the geysers were very active. As the sun came out and it got warmer, the geysers weren’t nearly as active. Our guide told us it’s even less active in summer. Geysers are most active at sunrise during the peak of winter.
I didn’t feel altitude sickness as much as I did on my first day in SPdA but I was tired and out of breath after a short walk. At least I didn’t have a headache. The surrounding is also very beautiful. There are huge snow covered mountains and as the sun comes up they look beautiful. The small dessert shrubs have a golden glow in the morning light. There are lots of Andean gulls and vicuna walking around. Occasionally you can even see foxes and rheas though we weren’t lucky enough to see them. As the temperature rose to about 35 deg F (2 deg C) the geysers became less active.
If you drive here on your own, try to arrive by sunrise, especially in summer. Geysers are overall less active in summer. If you come after 10 am in summer, you might wonder if it was worth the drive because geysers won’t be active at all. If you can, sign up for a tour group. You’ll get there early enough to see the geysers at their peak and you’ll get breakfast which includes bread, jam, and coffee. Granted its not the best breakfast you’ll have but then again, food in Chile is overall disappointing and we were used to it by now.
We left the geysers at 10 am and I didn’t feel rushed at all. By the time we left,geysers were quiet and according to our guide, this is how they look at sunrise in summer. Geysers in summer are so calm by 10 am that you can’t even tell there are any geysers around. On the return trip we could actually see an active volcano with smoke coming up. We didn’t pull over and stop but it’s easily visible from the van. On the way back, we made several short stops along the way.
The first stop was at Vado del Rio Putana to see some wildlife. We saw many different kinds of birds and ducks. After about 10-15 mins we continued to our next stop. Vado del Rio Putana is about 10-12 kilometers from Machuca, a very small village of about 7 families. The villagers were selling llama meat kebabs for 3,000 CLP (about $4.50 USD) and goat cheese empanadas for 1500 CLP (about $2.25 USD). The llama meat kebabs were surprisingly good and not gamey. The seasoning was perfect and since we’ll never get a chance to eat llama meat again we ate as much as we could.
There was also a llama for tourist to take a picture with but there was a semi tight rope around his neck. I didn’t like the tight rope around it’s neck so I didn’t wait in line for the picture. There’s also an old church and you have time to walk around the village for a few mins. We chose to eat llama meat kebabs instead of visiting the church. The bathroom at this village cost 300 CLP (about $0.50 USD) which is much cheaper than Western Europe. This was a beautiful small village in the middle of no where at 4,000 meter elevation. It was so serene and peaceful.
After about half an hour in Machuca we continued to make our way to SPdA. The next and last stop was at a huge canyon with giant cacti plants and Puritima River below. We enjoyed the view for about 10-15 minutes, took pictures and spoke with our tour guide. The views on the return trip are better from drivers side. As I mentioned earlier, this drive is very manageable with a two wheel car so you don’t need to sign up with a tour company but since the cost was only $28 per person I thought it was worth it.
We got dropped off somewhere in the town center around 1 pm. There were other tour companies which included pick up and drop off at the hotel but those cost between 23,000 CLP to 25,000 CLP (around $35 USD) per person. The walk from town center to our hostel was short and we enjoyed it. If you do choose to drive yourself, just be aware that distance signs on the road aren’t very accurate. If you choose to go with a tour company like we did, than make sure you get quotes and information from multiple places and pick the one you feel comfortable with. Don’t go with the first person/company you speak with.
Once we were back at our hostel, we felt very tired. It’s been almost 3 weeks of non-stop hiking and other activities. We wanted to relax, have a few drinks, and take it easy. There was only one store in town that sold alcohol bottles. American alcohol like Jim Beam were ridiculously expensive but local pisco was very cheap. We got a bottle of mango sour and pisco, sat in our hostel, drank and fell asleep early.
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