If you ever wondered how Earth looked like in prehistoric times, before massive life forms appeared on the surface of the planet, here’s the answer: it was like El Tatio ("weeping old man" in Kunza tongue) geothermal field.
This is a timeless landscape of geysers, fumaroles, mineral sources and strange geological shapes, all of them together in a flat white area of salt and carbonate, surrounded by two volcanoes (the Tatio and the Linzor) and a criscross of streams, both hot and cold, mineral and fresh, that flow from the volcanoes to a ravine in its southern end.
When the tour groups leave after dawn, and nobody remains there, the only sounds are those of the geysers spurting boiling water and steam, sometimes making beast-like sounds when they “swallow” its own water, and nothing else: just those strange sounds from the Earth that are always present, wind and solitude.
Sometimes, there are other sounds too: the “chirping” of the wild vicuñas (an Andean camelid) that roam in packs around the place, fearless of humans, or the beating of the wings of the small colony of pink flamingos at the NE end of the salt flat.
Most people visit the geysers on tours operated from San Pedro, a wise choice as the peak of the steam plumes is reached before and around the sunrise, when the difference of temperature between the cold air (at dawn, it can be as low as –20ºC/-4ºF or less) and the boiling water or steam which, due to the altitude, boils at only 86ºC/187ºF.
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Since there’s no dedicated page on VT for this out-of-this-world place, I’ll spread the information on it, on the appropriate sections on San Pedro de Atacama, identifying them as “TATIO”.
Nikon F4s, 20 mm. Nikkor, f.11-16, 1/30 sec., POL filter
Another day, another pack of tourists, and then the absolute solitude again: there’s nobody in 100 kilometres around, but there are vicuñas: they number in a couple of hundreds, and after they saw that we weren’t a threat, they dared to walk around the tent, and even inspect it to see what living being was inside...just like a group of 20 German tourists did one morning, when they gathered in a huge group in front of the tent to photograph it, and who got int a sort of paroxism when I peered out of the door to see what was going on outside (my sleepy pictures and videos should be in several European albums right now...)
The geothermal field was discovered around 1942, and tried to be developed into a geothermal source in the late 60’s, but it failed as well as the lithium mining attempt.
Remainders of that age, are the bizarre structure left in the middle of the salt flat, which recalls somewhat of a sequence of Mad Max.
Its area is about 10 sq. kilometres, and is located 97 kilometres N of San Pedro de Atacama, at an altitude of 4337 metres (14,225 ft.) on coordinates S 22º19’53,8” /W 68º00’47,7” (that of my tent).
In summer, it is reasonably endurable for most people, when the lower morning temperatures reach around –12º, but in winter this scene turns much colder, making the stay in the outdoors a demanding –and sometimes, life-threatening experience for those ill-equipped- as night the lowest temperatures are easily in the –40ºC range.
Nikon F4s, Nikor 20 mm., f.16 (set for hyperfocal), 1/60 sec, POL filter
Nevertheless, the astonishing beauty of El Tatio mutates and turns into an almost extraterrestrial way as the day goes by: in the morning, as the Sun rises, the steam plumes recede and things begin to look flatter, the bright light and silence makes one feel at another planet, while the only sound is that of the almost invisible steam rising from the fumaroles. Then, in the afternoon, when the sunlight falls from a lower angle, shapes and textures arise to life, as well as the first mists from the streams of hot water coming out of the ground; the sky turns into a deep indigo, and the Tatio volcano gets redder every passing minute. I had the luck of spotting a lenticular cloud right above the volcano’s cone, which turned into a bizarre deep red by the end of the day, while the geysers began to rise again into the chilly, sub-zero air.
Then comes the wind, and the night falls.
Nikon F4s, 20 mm. Nikkor, f.5,6, 1/30 sec., POL filter
I don?t remember the name of this magical place, I only believe to know it?s up the road into direction El Tatio geysers. German honeymooners with a car took us with them up the road. We stopped in heavy snowfall in the middle of nowhere, but these two knew their way: We walked left on a small path for a while and then climbed down a steep and deep valley with a little river at the ground. This river hat waters of around 35-40 degrees Celsius ? so perfect tub water. It was going down with a few little falls and pools. We were the only beings around, so quickly took off all our clothes ? it was around 0 degress Celsius?. The snow kept falling on our heads and clothes while we were nakedly enjoying, no loving, this perfect moment. Loving it very much. BTW, if I was on honeymoon up there, I would take nobody?.
The newly-wed took all the pics as she was a professional photographer and promised to send the best shots via mail, but unfortunately I never received them. Anyhow, perfect moments stay in your heart and soul forever, right?
This is the first snow capped cactus I have seen in my life, it all seemed so unreal. Especially after coming out of the hot steamy natural pools in the valley up direction El Tatio geysers.