I hate alarms I really do, especially when they’re at 4am. Dispelling fleeting annoyance we both focus more on the reason for the early start, we’re off to see the geysers, the highest and one of the biggest in the world. As if that wasn’t enough we have a dip into a thermal spring straight afterwards, something that we’ve had on our radar a few times this holiday but it’s never quite eventuated. In no time at all we’re in the bus doing the rounds of town picking up all the other adventurers and we’re off for our one and a half hour bus ride and hopefully a much needed little nap.
Napping in this scenery is a little tricky. We’ll end up at 4200m at El Tatio, the site of the geysers and as always elevation seems to be defined by crazy scenery. Our eyes are ever conflicted: captivated or heavy, we can’t decide.
Dawn threatens but the sun remains hidden as a scarred pan of barren bleached land emerges. Everywhere in this desolate space funnels of steam arise from nowhere to cast the vista into an eerie mist, we’re here. It occurs to me that I’ve never actually seen geysers up close; never swum in an open air natural hot spring either so it looks like we’ll be ticking few ‘first ever’ boxes today. The first thing that strikes me is the size of the space here, the geysers take up pretty much the entirety of a small valley, a welcome relief against the convoy of busses we made the journey with. Even though there’s heaps of people here a huge number hover around a single large geyser like penguins huddling against the cold, who knows why but they do. Thankfully for us that means that we can venture off feeling relatively unbothered by the hordes we’d feared.
And venture off we do, the landscape here is otherworldly. All around there are holes in the ground bubbling and frothing with hot water pushing bursts of steam and boiling water into the air. Very close beneath us there’s volcanic activity with molten lava colliding with cold water, the extremes of the Atacama in plain view. Despite the scarred landscape and magnitude of natural power right before us this place doesn’t intimidate, it feels quite serene. In a surprisingly warm zero degrees temperature at dawn, the warmth of the steam is a comfort against what should otherwise be a bleak scene. Indeed it is a bleak scene but it’s strangely welcoming, a puzzling flip-side to yesterdays harshness.
We wander around taking photos and simply take in this place. Surrounded in an amphitheatre of mountains this is another small cup of parallel nature that this area seems to dish up with consummate ease. This is indeed the natural world, but not as we know it.
Next stop, hot baths. The temperature has crept up to low single digits now, so we strip off and take the plunge into the warmth and potent smell of minerals. With the hot water only trickling in from one end most people are huddled up to the heat, this time we decide to join the penguins to experience the full super heated effect. We perform the polite shuffle as best we can trying to jostle as close to the hot stream as possible while avoiding the faux pas of a suggestive awkward underwater touch. We manage the shuffle better than some it has to be said, lets just say we’re happy to give up the ground. Having secured a fairly good spot we get good doses of the heat which comes in unexpected waves, everyone around seems to randomly leap up and screech when hit by a super heated gust of water. This comical dance is emphasised by the motley crew of people here, it’s an inter generational multicultural cast gleefully being scolded by mother nature in a scene that can only be called bizarre.
Time to get out and the cold outside that we were comfortable in before becomes far more stark. In the mad scramble to dry off it becomes clear that cold is far more flattering for girls than it is for boys; enough said on that matter.
On the journey back we stop to take in a few spots of wildlife and stop at a small town with a population of ten, seriously just ten. But they do make a wicked llama meat skewer and goat cheese empanada which we simply have to try to help support the local economy, conscientious tourists as we are.
Again battling the desire for a sleep with the eye popping scenery we sit in the bus taking in the place we have just seen. The small valley of geysers screams of everything that forbids life, a heady concoction of volcanic forces, pungent minerals, scarred earth and lifeless soil. On the other hand in this harshest of places life overcomes and thrives, small patches of mossy marsh and pure alpine streams make a mockery of the scenes of desolation that share the same canvas. The opposing messages we get from this region is jarring and strange to say the least, the Atacama seems to enjoy being everything that we know our planet not to be.
As they say in the infomercials: but wait, there’s more. It’s just after midday and this afternoon we’re off to see Laguna Cegar, a small lagoon plonked randomly it seems in the middle of the desert. For now though it’s time to rest, take in a bit of the town and continue the ever present process of getting our heads around the disorienting nature of the Atacama.
This day just keeps on going, and giving. We’re off to Laguna Cegar a salty lagoon where the salt density is 68% greater than the regular ocean so we should be able to float like in the dead sea, something else we’ve never done before. We take the bus along the salt flat getting possibly our best views into the distant forever that we’ve had this trip, it’s flat and endless which is bizarre being in the worlds longest mountain range. The lagoons are pretty close to San Pedro so in no time we’re there. We simply can’t wait so we basically run from the bus across the salty crust to the lakes, amazed that they’re even here. Charlie detours to take a few photos but I can’t wait, I strip off like a honeymooner desperate to test the buoyancy, I find it hard to fathom the difference it could make.
I walk across what looks like a small coral reef to the awaiting lagoon, but it’s not white coral it’s moulded salt dropping off into an aquatic abyss, a tropical reef for all money. We are in the tropics I guess, with the harsh sun beating down on me I stand at the edge of the ‘reef’ to gaze about at the mountains that surround me and the makeshift sea of salt I have before me. We love scuba diving and we love mountains, I just never thought I’d have those two scenes colliding in one location, for obvious reason. Imagining the marine wonders that await below I take the plunge, half anticipating to turn around and signal to the dive boat that I’m ok.
Holy crap the stories are true, this is insane. My fantasised marine wonderland will remain a fantasy as the unbelievably warm water spits me out to sit on the top with invisible forces that seem too strong to be true. This is like being in the ocean with a big wetsuit, but even more. I can lay on the surface on my belly with my head at no risk of getting wet, barely even needing to crane my neck back at all. Who needs a pool lounge when we have this; I sit atop a pure lake in the middle of a picturesque desert absorbing breathtaking scenery being held aloft by the water itself. Now this is a holiday. As Charlie returns I wait with anticipation for the inevitable amazement, it’s so good to share moments like this. We’re both grinning ear to ear in a rare instance of needing to just observe and be in this moment, so full, so complete it seems all we could possibly need in life and we can’t drink it up fast enough.
It seems now that there’s so much salt in these lakes it’s a wonder its a liquid at all. our entire bodies are crusted with a dry white sheen and any fabric, shoelace or bag strap that touched the water nearly instantly attains a thick coating like icing on a tuck-shop cupcake. We shower off in outdoor showers gazing over the grace of the slat flats allowing the pure cool water rinse us clean. Warning: pretty close to having a spiritual moment so at the risk of being sickly romantic, let’s move on.
Next stop, two eyes. Two eyes are two nearly identical lagoons again just plonked in the desert like a random prank. The difference here is that they have no preceding shore, no gradual dip in the land, they’re 2-3m deep carved away sinkholes cut from the jagged dustiness of the desert. The water here is only mildly salty and much cooler. And yes it’s obligatory, we simply must make a big running jump from the mini cliffs that drop steeply down to the refreshing desert water. This swim evokes much of the same emotion of the salt lakes in the craziness of where we are, it’s difficult to believe its real and more so that we’re actually here having a leisurely cool swim, it’s crazy.
Crazy is not crazy enough it seems, today is not done by any stretch, nearby is a salt flat of course which we are off to just to keep the broken record turning, we’ve never seen this before either. We cross the vastness again still amazed at the stretch of flat nothingness that lays out before us before we arrive at next stop, Antarctica. This day, this place is all getting a little bit rude, the salt flats are lapped by gleaming turquoise water to look like a frozen wonderland if ever there as one. Except for the dusty red clay crust that runs on forever, that’s a bit of a giveaways that we’re not in Antarctica but in isolation it’s snow all the way. Not allowed to go on the ‘snow’ we have to keep looking on in amazement to get the vision of arctic grace we see before us and place it in this desert, at the foot of the Andes.
This all seems a little weird to be true, and indeed it is. But no Iowaska or mushrooms were harmed in the making of this day, it’s all unnervingly real and right before us; I promise. We wander the edges of the salt flat taking photos and do our best to put this place into some kind of mental normality we’re yet to achieve. The sun is dipping casting long shadows across the salt signalling an imminent close to the junkie like endorphin bender we’ve just been on. We know very well that nature can be amazing and inspiring yet this level of disorienting misplacement of sensation is a trick we’ve never had played with such drama.
So lets recap where we’ve been today. Volcanic geysers, thermal mineral baths, salty tropical reefs, holes in the earth, Arctic looking salt flats and a desert sunset. In this one day there’s a long list of things we’ve never seen that people often shape a whole holiday around, but not in the Atacama, it’s a one day event in natures showroom.
We stand to gaze over the desert and what better way to do it than sipping a Pisco Sour, the guide plays a final trick to complete the scene. In a moment of romance we are gently lowered from the highs of the day back to something closer to our normal state of mind. The desert drifts to sleep and the skies catch fire while we stare on in a lazy embrace sinking into each other as the sun into the mountains so far away. This is indeed what we take holidays for, this transportation from the unfathomable and back again, the bubble of our entrapped understanding of this world is pushed out a little further today.
And what a day it has been, it feels like we’ve witnessed visions of heaven and hell in one day. Nature has laid out for us a few options of what sits on its extremes, nothing in the middle; it seems she doesn’t like to be boring around here. In the Atacama it’s not four seasons in one day, it’s four planets in one hour, nothing here seems to belong on earth as we know it. We thought we were going around the world but in the Atacama we’re going far beyond that. Call it spiritual names like heaven and hell or call it something cosmic; just don’t call it Earth.