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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

3 July 2011


2nd July 2011

Honestly I’ve never been so cold in my life.

You see, the attraction of the El Tatio geysers is in the mystical towers of steam they put out. But within an hour or so of dawn the bright altiplano sun has burned the steam away and rendered the spectacle nothing more than a wide field full of puddles of bubbling water. So: you have to be picked up from your hotel at 4am for the two hour drive up to the geyser field, and then you can wander out and watch the sun rise slowly over the caldera. This morning it was -13 degrees C and I would have loved some nice big boots, a woolly hat and a thick jacket. Two T-shirt, two long-sleeved shirts, a merino cardigan, a sleeveless down jacket and a lightweight waterproof were woefully inadequate. And my toes were painful in spite of three socks.

But I must admit that when I stopped shivering and shuddering long enough to see straight, the sight of the dozens of curling columns of steam scattered over the huge caldera (big volcanic crater) was very beautiful. Wandering among the geysers we found some that bubbled away fiercely like a jacuzzi, others that were spitting out mineral dust and had built themselves a big encrusted mound, and even some novelty mud geysers; blooping and glooping like a chocolate fondue. It was so teeth-chatteringly cold that we paused occasionally to stand right on top of small holes that were sending up less ferocious clouds of steam, just to get some feeling back in the toes. I’m not sure whether this was entirely wise, but it was definitely necessary. The utter freezing cold was as much something to marvel at as the geysers themselves.

Once the sun was fully up we bundled gratefully back into the minibus and rumbled off to a secret little valley nearby where there were hot pools for bathing. This was one of the rewards of picking the pricey tour: other tour groups make use of a big communal pool near El Tatio. However, we had checked out of our hotel and so wouldn’t be able to shower off the stink of sulphur, so we left the rest of our tour paddling and wandered up the valley in search of wildlife. And there were literally dozens of Viscachas hopping around, so how about that! Better still, while admiring the fuzzy fellows I happened to notice that they had another admirer: a splendid Culpeo Fox sitting in the lee of a boulder, no doubt hoping for a Viscacha breakfast.

Once our fellow tourists were re-clothed and only smelling faintly of the bowels of hell, we rumbled off again to our final stop, Cactus Valley. An actual river flows here, probably joining up with the San Pedro further down, and we went for an enjoyable hike down into the gorge with tall spiny cacti growing on either side and the water rushing down a waterfall as the gorge tightened and became lost in shadow. Nice to notice that after this much time at high altitudes we had more puff than some of our fellow tourists. I also noticed that other tour groups only stopped here for a quick photo opportunity with the cacti at the top of the valley, so another win for our more expensive tour.

So there we have it. A good day out on a group tour, no complaints at all. Perhaps proving the well-worn cliché: you get what you pay for.

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