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It's 4:00 a.m. and pitch dark outdoors. Inside the Hotel Park Calama, in the Antofagasta region of northern Chile, the friendly receptionist serves us coffee and cookies, and hands us boxed breakfasts, prepared by the hotel's chef.

Our driver arrives, and invites us into his four-wheel drive vehicle. Luis speaks only a bit of English, and we speak a smattering of Spanish, so we communicate in a battered mixture of both. We understand each other surprisingly well.

Steaming geysers surround a vehicle.
Steaming geysers surround a vehicle.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Because we're driving to El Tatio (Los Geiseres del Tatio), a field of geysers that is best seen at dawn, an early departure time is essential. Once the sun rises, morning winds disperse the steam and the spectacular views.

It's a long slow climb from Calama, at 2,700 meters, to El Tatio (Volcan Tatio) at 4,300 meters. The road is appalling, with countless turns and a washboard surface guaranteed to rearrange your internal organs.

After snaking our way up the mountainside, for 90 minutes, Luis stops the vehicle, turns out the lights, and invites us outside into the darkness. "Cielo lindo," he says.

Astronomical observatories

And indeed, it is a beautiful sky. A celestial planetarium arches above us, with more stars than we've ever seen in our lifetimes. "No contaminación," states Luis, proudly. We recall that the pollution-free mountain tops, here in the Atacama desert, are home to several observatories.

One extremely luminous planet stands out, above the eastern horizon. It's Venus. Back in the car, we follow the "star in the east." We feel like the Three Wise Men.

People walk geyser field in Chile.
People walk on geyser field in Chile.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The road continues its serpentine climb. Below the darkened edge, we spot a cross and a small altar. Luis explains that several Italian and Austrian tourists were killed here when their bus driver fell asleep. We silently hope that Luis went to bed early the night before. Reading our thoughts, he assures us that he knows the road well, since he used to drive trucks back and forth between Chile and Bolivia.

Luis suddenly slows the car and flashes on his bright lights. A half dozen llamas, grazing by the roadside, perk up their banana ears and bat their long eyelashes at us, as we pass.

Third largest geyser field in world

The sky lightens to an indigo blue, silhouetting the snow-covered mountain peaks surrounding us. They're all volcanoes, Luis tells us. Chile has 115 volcanoes, 36 of them still active.

We arrive at the edge of the geothermic field, a breathtaking Dante's Inferno with 100 puffing, steaming and spewing geysers. Luis explains that magma creates the steam by heating water in the underground river to 120°C.

Geyser steam towers over visitor.
Geyser steam towers over visitor.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although a few other jeep-loads of tourists have arrived, we feel alone in the vast primordial landscape. El Tatio is the Rotorua of Chile, but one without the sulfury odors. With eight per cent of the world's geysers, El Tatio is the third largest geyser field in the world, after Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, and the Valley of the Geysers in the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia.

Hot enough to cook eggs

We carefully make our way over the mineral-encrusted earth for a closer look. The geysers erupt from holes as small as a bathroom sink drain, to yawning cavities as large as a manhole in a city street. Some belch steam like giant tea kettles; others resemble cauldrons of boiling water. Still others spew pillars of mineral-laden water, creating cones, colored apricot, lemon and lilac.

People soak in thermal pool.
People soak in thermal pool.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

One visitor places an egg in the hot water running from a rasping steam vent. Four minutes later, he cracks open the shell. The egg is hard-boiled. He and his girlfriend share it for breakfast.

Natural Jacuzzi

Tentatively, we ford a vaporous stream, on stepping stones. On the other side, we find snorting fumaroles and craters of mud, bubbling like thick porridge. Nearby, a few visitors steep themselves in an emerald-green thermal pool, heated to 35°C, by runoff from the geysers.

We photograph a couple gazing at a geyser that's violently spurting a 10-metre-high shaft of steam. Seconds later, the wind shifts, enveloping them in a cloud. The effect is magical, surreal.

As the sun rises over the snow-crowned mountains, flanking the geyser field, the flumes of steam blanch alabaster-white against the metallic blue sky. We feel like privileged guests of the mountain gods.


Chile Tourist Board: www.chile.travel


There are no admission gates, souvenir stands, boardwalks or warning signs here. The earth's surface can be fragile. People have been scalded, after falling through the crust, to the boiling waters below. Be careful where you walk.

Other caveats are in order as well. At 4,300 metres, altitude sickness can be a problem for the unacclimatised. We both had headaches.

In spite of its proximity to the equator, the air can be cold, especially before sunrise. Depending on the month, early morning temperatures range from 4° to -10°C. Bring hats, gloves and sweaters or jackets that can be peeled off as the air warms.

If you plan to bathe in the thermal pool, wear swim suits under your clothing. There are no change rooms here.

While you can rent a car to drive to El Tatio, it must have a high clearance, and be tuned to high altitudes. Considering the road conditions, it's safer to join a tour, or hire a local driver/guide.

Tours also leave from San Pedro de Atacama. The trip is about 30 kilometers shorter. The Explora Hotel de Larache, near San Pedro de Atacama, offers a five-hour van and walking tour to the Geisers del Tatio.

LATAM Airlines flies to Santiago and Calama. El Tatio is 145 kilometres east of Calama.

More things to see and do in Chile:

Giant of the Atacama and Pintados in Northern Chile

Atacama Desert UNESCO Site - Humberstone Tour

San Pedro de Atacama Tours

Torres del Paine - Hiking from Explora Patagonia Lodge

Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa - Chilean Patagonia