A knock on the door in the dead of night wakes us up. I mutter/growl “gracias” to the night security guard. We both carry on snoozing but do make it out of our pits on time. Ness has a piccie-hangover, I’m just a zombie. Outside the stars are beautiful: the half-full moon has now disappeared over the horizon and the milky way is easily discernible, a bit lost on Ness who has other things on her head – ouch, pun!
There is a small crowd of froggies – oh non! A van for “Desert Adventures” turns up, but it is quite clear (somehow, in the dark) that we are not part of this group. A bit later our man turns up, also in a DA van. His name is Germán, a nice touch since both Sarah Wheeler and Keenan/McCarthy met Germáns on their trip, admittedly this was an aristocrat and not a mini-van driver! Gives us a bit of a sob story about how little he sees his girlfriend. I even tell him that he can bring her along if he is happy to wake her up at this time but it is lost on him. Bit further, sob story having been expanded on, he asks if it is ok if he brings her along. “Of course” (what else can you say? But I do genuinely mean it – a “foursome” might be more convivial anyway) [Aargh! did I just say it would be nice to have a “foursome”?!!] We pick her up from a house in the outskirts of SPdA, name is Gloria but can’t make her out in the dark.
Ness and I drift off to semi-sleep for the long lumpy drive, while Germán and Gloria talk intermittently. It is still the middle of the night and when I open my eyes I can see a starlit sky out of the van window. Ness is dozing, probably semi-asleep too. Every now and again I take a peek, the sky gradually starts getting lighter and the road lumpier. There is another van behind us and we are probably part of a daily convoy of vans “doing” the Tatio trip. The road climbs gradually, to altiplano level, and even with the heater full on it feels cold. The road disappears altogether in places and we have to cross frozen streams at various points. I would have been hesitant doing this in a bruiser-basher but Germán steers then van through slowly and confidently.
Finally we get to the Tatio geysers. Plumes of steam rising from earth. The tour vans converge at this point but rather than detracting from the experience it actually adds to it. We park ours and after a short lecture by Germán, which amounts to “it’s cold out there” and “don’t fall in the geysers”, we (Ness and I – Germán and Gloria stay in the van) wander around in a daze. We’re still not entirely awake (+ added piccie-factor for Ness), and the whole place is other-worldly. It is freezing, walking through the steam warms us up. Everywhere there are small groups of people wandering about, similarly dazed.
Back at the van Germán has breakfast for us, so the packed breakfast provided by Altiplanico stays in its plastic bag. Coffee, hot milk (heated in the geyser), salami and queso baps, and a bit later we are treated to boiled eggs – yes, geyser-boiled. Germán looks on incredulously as I heap 3-4 spoons of coffee powder in my cup. “You like the tea, yes?” he says to Ness, knowing that we’re from England.
The sun is out by now and we have another wander through the geyser field, appreciating it more now. It is spectacular, a trip well worth the early start. After a while we troop back into the van and drive on to a few bigger geysers, spread out more. Loose circles of rocks have been placed around the largest one. These geysers are deeper. Germán tells us how not long ago a Spanish guy fell in. He had walked into the centre of the geyser, the steam enveloped him and he lost his bearings. They pulled him out alive, minus most of his skin apparently, but he died en route to the hospital. A piece of skin has been left by the geyser as a warning – it even still has got hairs on. Euaargh!!
Now we go for a long drive across the altiplano, spotting many vicuñas along the way (seen it before!) The drive is cross-country in many places – superb! After a stop for Germán (“this is the rocks of pee-pee”), we come to a stunning view of the salar. By this time I have managed to get Alex’s tape changed – same syndrome as with Juan in Arica. The view of the salar is wide, stunningly beautiful and very special. It all gets a bit much for me and I have to choke back tears that are welling up. No-one has noticed thanks to my dark shades. We stop and get out. I ask Germán to switch off the engine and leave the music playing. Bottom lip now beginning to quiver so walk forward out of sight. This is very, very special, this moment – don’t think I’ll forget it in a hurry. Try to take a picture with the big lens but decide against it – how can you capture it? The picture would just show a distant flat plain. It’s 100 kilometres long Germán says, and we can see most of it. I tell him that’s equivalent to half of Belgium!
The drive continues, towards Puritama. It’s still a long way. The Puritama thermal baths are down a gorge, quebrada, along a very bad and narrow stretch of road – even Germán admits this and says he’s worried about the effect on his tyres – reassuring!
A small shack with attendants is erected below. There are a few more vans parked. A walkway leads down the quebrada along the pools. There are changing rooms. Fortunately one of the big groups, Explora, will be in one large pool at the top so we have the pick of which pool we’ll go for. Ness hops into ladies & changing room, I walk on down with Germán and we find a idyllic pool. I start to change while he acts as lookout to stop others from jumping in the same pool. Quite unnecessary since there seem to be plenty of pools for all of us. Pretty quickly I’m in the pool – lovely warm water, with pampa grass and rocks around. A low wall and underwater benches have been built out of rock to provide a small pool from which the water cascades calmly down to the next pool. A wooden platform has been built by each pool. It is impossible to see the other bathers, either above or below us.
Soon Ness joins me and we both declare “happeee!” Germán and Gloria have carried on to a pool further down. The whole setting is idyllic and we spend ½-1 hour relaxing in the pool. Some older people walk up and down the walkway, clearly not intending to jump in. Just not their age’s thing to be so “free” I guess – don’t know what they’re missing! Feeling refreshed we climb back in the van, so chilled now that I hardly notice the hairy drive up, even though I’m sat on the outside. Ness looking more human now, but dozing most of the way back. We stop at a group of large cacti which Germán claimed were his secret. Two vans are already there. “Not my secret anymore!” He takes a picture of me stood next to the largest cactus, 6-7m in height. The drive back is still long but we’re so chilled now it doesn’t really matter. Germán tells me about “Come on Chile way!” – not sure about the explanation but it’s meaning is clear – “adelante!” he drops us back at our hotel, around 1-2pm.
Ness has a snooze to sleep off that last piccie and I have a quiet half hour on our terrace. Then it is time to get going. Final bits settled at reception, we start the drive back to Calama. Ness has now fully rejoined the land of the living and is driving. On the way we take a picture at the something of patience, an area of cracked earth. It’s a long monotonous drive back. Over the final hill we get a good long-distance view of Chuqui – it’s massive. If you didn’t know what to look for you would easily mistake it for a mountain.
At Calama we end up driving through outlying bits of town, having missed the turning for the aeropuerto, but soon find our way. We both feel absolutely knackered and conversation is limited. On the plane we both sleep, me more than Ness who is still awake. We’re looking forward to getting away from all this dust, sand, desert, etc. Our hair, ears, noses, everything seems to feel sandy and dusty. Santiago will hopefully rejuvenate us and we’re looking forward to heading to the fresh green south.
At Santiago we’re met by an ADSMundo rep + driver, and have a comfortable car. The ride takes us through some less than scenic parts of Santiago, the auto-route was blocked because of an accident. Bosque Norte is a recommended street, in Las Condes, for good dining – we’ll see. Hotel is smack bang in the centre, on a large square with La Moneda along one side. We trudge in our dusty scruffy gear, feeling under-dressed. Dump bags and quick splash of water, followed by welcome piccie in the wood-panelled bar. The nibbles are giant green bogies! Now waiting for room service to arrive... Ness is already asleep!