There are few places on our planet where you can literally watch the Earth breathing. In my opinion, El Tatio in Northern Chile is definitely one of the best locations to experience this rare phenomenon. With the concentration of 67 geysers and more than 300 hot springs within an area of 30 sq.km., it is the third-largest geothermal field in the world, after the Yellowstone National Park in the US and the Valley of Geysers in the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia. It has also become a popular destination for tourists to observe geyser activity amidst the awe-inspiring volcanos of the Andes Mountains.
El Tatio Geysers Location
El Tatio, also known as Copacoya geysers, is located high up in the Andes Mountains, right on the border with Bolivia. At an altitude of 4320 m above sea level, it is not only the largest geothermal field in the southern hemisphere but also the highest in the world. It belongs to the so-called Central Volcanic Zone, one of the volcanic belts in the Andes. The volcanoes that make up the belt serve as the source of heat for the geysers.
El Tatio also flanks the Atacama Desert, and as much as I try to avoid sounding too scientific, I cannot help mentioning one more interesting fact. The local hot springs are populated with microorganisms that thrive in the extreme conditions and serve as a prototype for the early Earth and potential past life on Mars. This is one of many reasons why the Atacama region draws so many comparisons to the red planet.
How to get to El Tatio Geysers
You can easily reach El Tatio from San Pedro de Atacama, a small touristic town just 80 km away from the geyser field.
Another slightly bigger town in the area is Calama, about 100 km away from the geysers. Visitors arrive here at the local El Loa Airport. However, since Calama has little to offer in terms of sightseeing, most tourists head to San Pedro straight away.
In San Pedro, you can either rent a car to explore the local sights on your own. Or you can buy a tour to El Tatio geysers from one of the local travel agencies.
The route to the geyser field lies through bumpy terrain, high in the mountains. Besides, the area is very sparsely populated, and it is very easy to get lost if you do not know the route. That is why I would rather recommend you visiting El Tatio geysers with a guided tour. It will take you to the most impressive sights in the field.
El Tatio Geysers Tour
The tour to El Tatio Geysers costs about 20 000 Chilean pesos (about 25 USD) per person.
You can check out different travel agencies on the internet before your trip or ask for recommendations on your arrival at the hotel. I believe it is always cheaper to book tours on the spot. Travel agents are always more eager to negotiate discounts when they see you in person at their office. For example, we bought our tour from the Atacama Connection travel agency following a recommendation by our hotel owner. We ended up pretty happy with their prices and service.
The Best Time to Visit El Tatio Geysers
El Tatio geysers look most spectacular at dawn when the temperature difference between the freezing cold air and the boiling hot water inside the fumaroles reaches the maximum and projects the pillars of steam higher into the air. So brace yourself for an early wake-up if you want to witness a beautiful sunrise over the smoking geyser field!
Note that a tour bus usually picks you up at your hotel between 4:00 – 4:30 am and arrives at El Tatio between 6:00 – 6:30 am, just before the sun begins to rise over the fuming fumaroles.
How to Prepare for El Tatio Geysers Tour
First of all, get ready for the cold and put on layers of warm clothes. While it can get pretty hot in San Pedro de Atacama during the day, El Tatio is located at a much higher elevation in the Andes, where the temperatures fall below zero at night. So when you arrive at the field early in the morning, the air is so biting cold that you hurry to put on your beany and gloves. A good warm jacket is also a must! Once the sun heats up the air in the afternoon, you can take it off.
On arrival at El Tatio, the tour guide usually sets up a pretty good breakfast while you are walking around the geyser field. However, bring along some snacks to fill your stomach with during the two-hour ride to the site. Due to an early rise, you are likely to miss your breakfast at the hotel.
There is also an opportunity to swim in the hot springs later during the tour. So, if the idea of bathing in freezing cold weather tempts you, bring along a swimsuit, towel, and flip-flops.
Last but not least, take some time to acclimatize to the high altitude before visiting the geysers. At 4320 m above sea level, you can easily develop altitude sickness. That is why spend a few days exploring sites at a lower elevation around San Pedro to let your body gradually adjust to the height.
Also, drink a lot of water during the tour to prevent dehydration. Keep aspirin or other headache medication at hand if you suddenly feel sick.
Sunrise over El Tatio Geysers
You arrive at El Tatio when the first sun rays begin to break through the dusk. The view of the vast geothermal field is overcast with thick smoke rising from the awakening geysers. You can barely discern the mountains peaks in the distance just as the wrinkled muddy earth comes to life right before your eyes.
The first part of the tour takes you through a valley with the highest concentration of fumaroles in the area, which duly justifies its name. You see, in the Atacameño language, El Tatio means oven. And once you are in the field, you understand why it was called this way. Standing in the middle of the steaming ground, you can closely observe all possible variations of geothermal activity: boiling water fountains, puffing geysers, bubbling mud pots, fulminating mud volcanos, perpetual spouters, vaporous hot springs, and sinter deposits from the extinct vents.
Exercise extra caution while walking around the field to avoid getting scorched by splashes from active geysers or sinking into one of those gurgling pits! The safe areas are clearly marked with stones. So do not overstep their bounds! There have been reports of people getting injured or killed after getting too close to the steam vents.
Swimming in El Tatio Hot Springs
When the day breaks, the guide takes you to the second area near a small creek. There you can watch several powerful geysers ejecting sky-high steam pillars of more than 30 meters.
There is also a small artificially made swimming pool filled with thermal water. Despite the freezing air temperature, a lot of tourists rush to change into their swimsuits and take a plunge in the hot springs. For me personally, it was too cold to take off my warm clothes and swim. So I preferred to walk around and take more pictures of the surrounding geysers.
Return from El Tatio to San Pedro de Atacama
On the way back to San Pedro de Atacama, the bus makes a few more stops so that you can soak in the beauty of the surrounding Atacama Desert. In fact, there are quite a few remarkable places to visit on the route.
For example, our guide showed us the stunning panorama of the Putana River with Cerro Colorado in the background.
We also ascended the slopes of the roadside hills to look at the Canyon Rio Grande.
We passed by an authentic local village of Machuca to see the traditional Atacameño houses and try some llama kebabs.
We were also lucky to observe a few species of the local flora and fauna: wild vicunas, a curious fox, and little viscachas. These funny little creatures look like rabbits and blend in with the surrounding rocks so well that it’s pretty challenging to see them with a naked eye.
Most buses return to San Pedro around midday. So travelers have plenty of time to explore other fascinating places in the afternoon. For example, we went to the Moon Valley, which is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing sights in the Atacama Desert. Alternatively, you can visit Termas de Puritama, watch flamingos in the National Flamingo Reserve, or swim in the Laguna Cejar.