For almost a week I have had several encounters with the extremes of the Atacama desert. It is a land of weird rock formations, snow capped volcanoes, high altitude lakes, salt flats, flamingoes, geysers and extreme temperatures. If Easter Island was mostly about archeology, the Atacama is about geology. We rented a car in Calama and drove the 100 km. to the the little desert town of San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama is just a little adobe village in the desert, about 2.438 m. above sea level. But it makes the best place to stay while exploring the desert. The desert covers a large area and a day trip can often take up to 10 hours from San Pedro. It is a lovely little town and does have everything: a vast number of restaurants, souvenir shops and tour operators. A really relaxed little place. When the heat became too unbearable it was lovely to sit in the shade at a cafe. The time to be active is either at sunrise or at sunset.
The Atacama desert is said to be the driest desert on earth. It covers 1000 km. strip of land on Chiles Pacific coast. The temperatures are extreme. During the day it can reach 40 degrees C, but during the night it can fall almost to 0. Despite the high temperatures during the day, the high peaks are topped with snow, which is possible because of the high altitude. There is so little light pollution here in the desert, which makes Atacama the perfect place for stargazing. The night sky is amazing! Maybe that is the reason for placing the world's largest observatory here. I did not go there, but I did watch that amazing sky.
During my stay, the distance covered was more than 1000 km. I went to see the salt flats, the high altitude lagunes, a pre-columbian fortress, the Moon Valley with really weird rock formations. But what made the deepest impression on me was my early morning visit to El Tatio Geyser field.
According to every guide I have read about the geyser field of El Tatio, it should be visited at dawn. Because it is 95 km. from San Pedro it meant getting up at the forbidden hour of 04 o'clock in the morning! But we stumpled out of bed and started the 1 and 1/2 hour drive on a winding road, through pass as high as 4.800 m. Just before reaching the kiosk where the entrance fee is payed, we punctured! It was still dark. The temperature was 1 C degrees! In the dark and the freezing cold air we had to change the tire before we could continue! Still, we were lucky it happened there and we did make it to the car park before the sun rose.
El Tatio geyser field is situated 4.300 m. above sea level, which makes it the highest geyser field in the world. It has more than 80 active geysers (according to the information given at the entrance) and is the largest geyser field on the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world. It is really like walking through a gigantic steam bath! Surrounded by gurgling geysers and gassy fumaroles. There is a constant shooting of boiling water and clouds of steam into the air, making it a spectacular sight. This sight is followed by the sound of bubbling that sounds like boiling kettles!
The whole area is surrounded by volcanoes. The sight of these steaming fumaroles at dawn in the clear altiplano air is unforgettable. The light changes as the sun rises and illuminates the steam. Within only 2 hours the temperatures changes so much that we changed our fleece with swimsuit.
As the sun started to warm our bodies we ended this unforgettable morning in the thermal pool. The pool is fed by the boiling water from the geysers. What a delight and a great way to get warm again. That was also my last day in San Pedro de Atacama.
Next stop: Santiago and Valparaiso
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All the photoes are mine, Ulla Jensen (flickr, Instagram and facebook)