[Atacama III] December 2, 2011: Geysers and lagoons

[ed.: I’m back in Valparaíso, so I will now start posting the rest of the Atacama blogs (the Internet was too slow to do so in San Pedro). Ready yourselves for some photo-heavy posts!]

This fine December morning, I woke up at 3am and put on a swimsuit under my clothes. Is that not perfectly normal for December? I’m still getting used to the seasons-flip of the Southern Hemisphere. My schedule for the day was to embark upon two different tours, through Atacama Experience/Turismo LaYana: one in the morning to the Tatio Geysers, and the other in the evening to Cejar Lagoon. (I’m not normally the type to be inclined towards tours, but I figured, as a lone female traveler in the middle of the driest place in the world, it might be wise not to wander off into the desert alone.)

I met the Tatio tour bus outside my hostel around 4am. El Tatio is the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere, nestled in the Andes Mountains at an elevation of 4,200 meters (~13,800 feet). It is most impressive at sunrise, when the temperature is just right for pluming steam clouds. Within a few hours after sunrise, the clouds and eruptions diminish. Since it’s a two-hour drive each way, a ridiculously early departure time is essential.

After the bus had picked up a few more people (~10 total in the tour), the guide introduced himself and talked a little about what we were going to do that day. There were a few non-Spanish speakers in the group, so he would say every sentence in Spanish and then in creative English; oftentimes, I understood his Spanish better than the English! After the introduction, he told us to sleep and turned off all the lights.

I dozed for a while, bumping against the window as the bus veered. Suddenly, I felt the bus pull to the side of the road and stop. The guide told us they were hearing a weird noise from the engine; they investigated further and decided they couldn’t continue with this bus (the engine had gotten gunked up from the ever-present desert dust). They called for another bus, but didn’t know how long it might take, since we were already an hour on the road.

A few of the other people on the tour fretted aloud about missing the sunrise. The guide started an impromptu astronomy talk, for those brave enough to stand out in the pitch-black morning cold. I started worrying that, although I had dressed warmly, I wasn’t going to be warm enough — even inside the resting bus I was too chilly. I curled up until the replacement bus finally arrived, and then dozed more on the new bus. I woke only long enough to glimpse a pair of guanacos hanging out in a field, to wonder blearily, “Did I really just see guanacos, or am I asleep?” and then to lapse back into unconsciousness.

Minutes before sunrise…

We arrived at the Tatio Geyser Field about ten minutes before sunrise. This turned out to be ideal: it was -4º C (25º F) out there, which was bitter (but survivable); as soon as the sun started inching up over the Andes, it felt a whole lot nicer, even though there was visible ice all over the ground. Our guide showed us a few small geysers, and told us about the science of why they occur. None of the Tatio geysers erupt very high — even the biggest ones didn’t spurt any higher than my shoulder — but they make up for that with voluminous white steam. We walked all around the geyser field, with no barrier between us and the geysers, stepping over bubbling pools and crystallized minerals.

Interesting mineral layering.

After half an hour, we took a break to eat a breakfast provided by the tour. For each person, there was a ham and cheese sandwich, a chocolate bonbon, and a hard-boiled egg (which I normally don’t care for, but I adored these because they doubled as highly effective handwarmers). There was also an array of hot beverages: black tea, coffee, and mate de coca (a useful remedy against altitude sickness).

A natural platform.
Wreckage from an abandoned government project to harness geothermal power.

We did a little more wandering at the far end of the geyser field, and then piled back into the tour bus to go see another section of larger, erupt-ier geysers, as well as Piscina Termal (a hot spring pool that one can swim in). I wandered off to take pictures of the larger geysers and the stunningly dappled Andean hills. I also stuck one hand into the pool, but was too chilly to leap all the way in.

Volcanic streams, with geyser plume in the distance.
This was the highest I saw any geyser erupt.
Sulphurous water.
Andes Mountains. Unbelievably beautiful.

Our next stop was the Putana River, a verdant river full of plants and birds, in striking contrast to the desert-red hills it wound through. We were able to see coots (big amiable chunky black waterbirds), as well as their offspring (equally round, but grey and fluffy). There were also apparently foxes up in the hills, but I did not meet any.

All that green is vigorous fresh plant life, by the way (not algae).
Coots! Young coot in the front, adult near the back.

We stopped for lunch at a tiny altiplanic village called Machuca. I tried una comida tipica: a goat-cheese empanada. It was a picturesque village, with a church, an alpaca-wool vendor, and a handful of houses whose thatched roofs were topped with woven crosses. It exists through tourism alone; it’s strange to think of what a delicate position that must be.

Machuca church.
I keep forgetting how to tell guanacos and vicuñas apart. But I think this is a vicuña.

Our final stop was Valle del Cactus. This was the only part of the tour where my time-desires did not align with their schedule (at our other stops, I had always felt satisfied with the amount of time we’d had to explore). But here, as suggested by the name, there were cacti, as well as numerous tiny strange desert plants! I would have gladly spent the whole day poking around the rocks looking for plants, but we had only about fifteen minutes. Ah well, better than nothing.

Tiny pink unidentified desert flower.
CACTI! Giant ones.

The tour bus dropped me back at my hostel, and I rested for a few hours before heading out to the second tour of the day. When I arrived for this tour, they handed me off to another tour agency. (Tour agencies in San Pedro seem to function like a small dusty Disneyland, in that there’s a tremendous amount of invisible behind-the-scenes work that results in people popping up at the right places at the right times.)

Our first stop was Laguna Cejar, a large turquoise lagoon with such a high salt content that you float in it (it has an even higher salinity than the Dead Sea). I tiptoed gingerly in, and then entertained myself by sitting perfectly still at the surface, letting the strong winds push me hither and yon. It was a strange and enjoyable sensation to swim in a body of water that just plain refuses to let you submerge any deeper than a few feet.

Note the difference in colors between the rocky shallows and the salty depths.

We emerged from Laguna Cejar, the saltwater caking on us in little white salty swirls as we dried off. Our next stop was the Ojos del Salar, two round lagoons of mysterious origin. We were to rinse off the dried salt here, either by leaping gracefully in from an intimidating rocky edge, or by wading in through mud and grasses. I waffled, but finally pulled together enough willpower to leap off the rocky edge and into the water and aaah, so chilly! But I felt quite intrepid.

I call this the “oh dear I’ve forgotten how to do a proper cannonball” dive.

Our final stop was Tebinquinche, a vast salt-flat/lake (a salt-flat in high summer, but a shallow lake the rest of the year). Its edges are lined with bright white salt deposits, some slushy with water, others crisp and dried. I wandered around the edges, amused at the similarity between salt deposits and freshly-fallen snow; perhaps it is December after all! Our guide informed us that this was a fine opportunity to walk on water, Jesus-esque: even in the middle of the lake, it’s only a few inches deep, so it appears that you are atop the water.

Salty edges.
Half-crystallized little pool.
Dance, magic dance.

Finally, we regrouped to share snacks, pisco drinks, and conversation, as the sun set in the mountains behind us. Tebinquinche went from pleasant to miraculous: its shallow waters shone sparkling pale blue, and the flats and mountains behind it colored burnished orange.

Words do not suffice.

(As always, I took way too many goshdarned photos on this day: over 200! I had great difficulty narrowing it down, but I did. I would have put them all on the blog if I could, but I suspect that might have been excessive, so… if you liked these, you can see ~30 additional photos from this date on my Flickr.)

6 thoughts on “[Atacama III] December 2, 2011: Geysers and lagoons

  1. Lots of thoughts, as usual-none that I can articulate-save for this one: how about getting Ember a baby-sized alpaca-wool hat, please? It’s bitterly cold here (by that I mean 75 degrees or so) and she simply NEEDS an alpaca hat with a pom-pom up top and earflaps and a chin strap but we don’t have any, which means I’m a horrible mother.

    1. Aw, darn. If you’d asked a day earlier… they had many alpacan things in San Pedro, but less so here in Valpo. But I will keep an eyeball out for further alpacan things. (And even if I find none: your child will already be the recipient of half the gifts I’ve bought here, so she shan’t freeze.)

      T’ank you, sweetpie! May I be a linguist AND botanist AND writer? And auntie?

  2. Oooh oooh oooh oooh. It just ain’t right. How come you, who is only a pup, should be there when I, a … oh, wait a minute. If you’re a pup, then I’m… Never mind. It’s just not fair that you can be there and I can’t.

    Loverly pix. The ones with green are gorgeous. So are the ones with pink. And the blue ones: well, I need not say more.

    In the picture captioned words do not suffice, what is making the shadow on the left side? It looks like maybe a car?


    1. If I’m a pup, then that makes you an elegant matron doggie. Obviously.

      For me, I prefer the caramel-colored ones. And the red ones. But I like them all. Did you look at the Flickr ones too?

      “Words do not suffice” – I don’t know. All my pictures from that moment are striped with long shadows: some possibly car-shaped, others completely mysterious. Perhaps it’s a mountain, or a large clod of dirt, or magical Atacameño air particles.

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