Be careful when walking in between the many thermal sources and boiling water holes in El Tatio geothermal field: the ground crust is quite breakable and thin around most of the holes, since it is not always solid “ground”, but a series of rigid layers of carbonate that can break when stepped on; these are sometimes unnoticed, as they form “bridges” over the water. In 2000, a French tourist fell into one of those craters after the carbonate “bridge” fell when he stepped on it to make a video close-up, and was bolied alive (he died before getting to the hospital). He fell into a dual geyser called “El Francés” (“The Frenchman”), after him: this geyser has a boling vapour and water plume, while its other end –2 metres away- is “idle”; then, the water “sinks” into the first crater and spurts from the other.
Other craters have solid rims, but is pretty easy to fall inside when whiffs of hot vapour wrap people around, making it impossible to see where they are stepping on (recently, a Spanish tourist fell into the boling water after his glasses got fogged by the condensing vapour; he didn’t noticed that he was “blind”, and kept walking directly inside the crater, believing that he may get out of the vapour cloud in a few seconds).
On Aug.29, 2004, a 32-year old Chilean engineer fell into a geyser and died, too.
The closest hospital is in Calama, about 5 hours away by road (air MedEvac from El Tatio is virtually unavailable and extremely expensive) and there’s no alternate, faster route to get there.
Mud geysers are also dangerous, as it is easy to step on supposedly “solid” ground and soon finding that that ground is a kind of boiling quicksand (or rather, quickmud...); this mud sometimes has a dangerous “sucking” effect.
Also, stay clear of some corrosive-water geysers, since their minerals can damage shoes and clothing by corroding or burning them (actually, I got one corner of a Gore-Tex boot virtually “disolved” by sulphurous, boling water). Usually, the stinkier are the most corrosive.
In the plain of the geothermal field, there are several “invisible” natural holes filled with non-spurting water –either cold or hot- which are quite unnoticeable because they have a water level that matches that of the (already watery) ground itself, so if you are not paying attention to where are you stepping, you can suddenly end up immersed in mineral water.
Some of these holes are big enough to swallow a small car, and the reflection of its water surface is the same as that of the water over the “solid” ground, so be careful (at a first glance, one may think that all is a flat and solid surface covered by a thin film of water...but it isn’t...)
Nikon F4s, 20 mm. Nikkor, f. 8-11, 1/30 sec., POL filter
Explora Atacama - Hotel de Larache San Pedro de Atacama