Monday, December 12th 2005

In an ideal world, after a day of cycling in the desert I'd have had a lie-in to recover. But I'd booked myself onto a trip to the geysers at El Tatio, and for reasons I really can't begin to understand, these geysers only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. This meant that seeing them required a 4am start. My guide book said that the lights of San Pedro were off between midnight and dawn, so I thought I might see some good skies, but they've obviously got some better electricity since the book was published, and I waited for my minibus under a lit streetlight. The bus arrived shortly after 4, and we drove off into the night. After about half an hour we stopped to have a look at the sky, and it was absolutely stunning.

I dozed during the rest of the journey. The air was getting thinner and colder, and even though I'd been at about 2000m above sea level for almost a week, the sudden rush to over 4,000m was quite taxing. As dawn began to break, we were passing through the village of Machuca, and half an hour before dawn we were at the geysers. The temperature outside was almost -10°C, and we were on a plain 4,300m above sea level, surrounded by mountains a few hundred metres high, with steam rising all around and a deep velvet blue sky overhead.

I set off to explore straight away. The ground was frosty in places but hot in others. Having seen geysers in Iceland, at first I thought these ones were not too impressive. The most powerful was only throwing water up a couple of metres, compared to Iceland's finest, Strokkur, which jetted out columns of water up to 15 metres tall. And all of these geysers were in almost constant eruption, rather than the occasional jets from Strokkur. But these were more impressive in their own way, especially because they covered such a large area. And the biting cold of the Altiplano dawn meant that each droplet of water left a trail of steam behind it, and everything was wreathed in mist.

As soon as the Sun came up, I liked El Tatio more. The warmth was tangible and the light on the geysers was impressive. Also fun was the breakfast provided by the people I'd come with - they put a box of eggs in one hot pool, and a carton of chocolate-flavoured milk in another, and within a few minutes we were eating delicious soft-boiled eggs and drinking hot chocolate. Overhead, the interplay of sunlight and ice particles was creating a circumzenithal arc, something I'd never seen before.

It was quite eerie when the geysers began to die down at about 8am. It seemed like someone was turning off the heat, and that perhaps the whole thing was somehow artificial, generated only for the tourists. By 9am only a few wisps of steam still rose into the warming morning, and it was time to head back down to San Pedro. I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude now, and was glad to be descending again. We drove to Machuca and stopped there for lunch. It's a spectacular place, a tiny village lost in the brown Atacama, but with a glowing white church to make it stand out. They were selling empanadas at a fairly extortionate price, but it was clearly a poor village and I didn't begrudge them this revenue source. Besides, by now my head felt like it was about to explode any minute, and I was hardly able to convert from Chilean pesos into pounds anyway.

We drove for a long while on a plain about 4000m above sea level, spotting herds of vicuña well camouflaged in the brown background. As we began to descend, we got a puncture, and stopped for about half an hour to fix it, which seemed like forever given my pounding high-altitude headache. I was incredibly relieved to get back to the relatively dense atmosphere of San Pedro at 3pm, and spent the afternoon recovering lazily.

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