Marie and I knew we had to wake up early, but there’s a difference between the idea of the alarm going off at 3:30am and the reality of the alarm going off at 3:30am. The reality is worse. Much worse. If as human beings we normally only use 10% of our brains, Marie and I were probably operating at no better than 2% as we dragged ourselves out into the cold, dark street to wait for our bus.
We were headed to the El Tatio geyser field, which, at 4,321 meters (14,177 feet), is one of the highest geothermal areas in the world. Tours leave painfully early in the morning because the drive from San Pedro takes two hours and the geysers are best viewed at dawn, when the freezing air enhances the columns of steam and mist.
As our bus bounced along the unpaved road Marie and I tried to remind ourselves why it had sounded like such a good idea to get up in the middle of the night and stand around in sub-zero temperatures. We dressed as warmly as we could, but without heavy jackets we were poorly protected from the face-numbing cold. “Yesterday it was negative ten degrees Celsius here,” said our guide as we arrived at El Tatio. Marie, who hadn’t even brought closed-toe shoes, was glad she’d at least decided to wear a pair of my socks with her sandals. Our teeth chattered as we explored the geyser field in the early morning dark.
Just before sunrise our guide gave us the option of taking a swim in one of El Tatio’s thermal pools. Hot water sounded great, of course, but by that point our brains were functioning well enough to suspect that if we got into the water we’d also have to get back out. And we were dimly aware that when we got back out we’d be wet, which would make us even colder that we were before. The fact that I hadn’t brought a swimsuit didn’t sweeten the pot. So we took a pass and instead explored more of the geyser field.
Back in San Pedro that afternoon we had a couple of hours to warm up in the desert sun before taking off again, this time to visit a few lower-altitude lakes near San Pedro. Our first stop was Laguna Cejar, a small lagoon with an even higher salt concentration than Israel’s Dead Sea. The water was on the cold side and Marie and I hadn’t completely thawed out from El Tatio, but this time we sucked it up and went for a swim. We both had a lot of fun floating effortlessly from the natural buoyancy created by the dense, super-saline water.
Marie’s First Plunge into Laguna Cejar (Video)
From Laguna Cejar we drove to a pair of fresh-water sinkholes called the Ojos del Salar. The water was even colder than Laguna Cejar, but I took the plunge in order to wash off the white coating of salt I picked up from my previous swim. Before we left our guide pointed out a plume of smoke rising from a volcano in the distance.
Our final stop was Laguna Tebenquinche, a lake ringed by crusty white salt formations. Laguna Tebenquinche is extremely shallow, with less than an inch of water in most places, which creates the illusion that someone who steps into the lake is walking on water. It was a remarkably beautiful setting, and we stayed to watch what turned out to be a colorful sunset. Once the sun finally dropped below the horizon Marie and the rest of our group headed back to the bus for a pisco sour, but I ran around frantically trying to capture the incredible reflections created by orange-red clouds hovering over the otherworldly lake.
That night Marie refueled from our long day with what had emerged as the signature meal of her trip: Bistec a lo Pobre, a South American dish that starts with a thick steak, adds a base layer of French fries and grilled onions, and then tops the whole thing with a couple of fried eggs. Our waiters frequently underestimated Marie when she placed the order. “The steak is big,” one waiter warned her. Marie smiled. “With many French fries,” the waiter continued. Marie nodded. “And also eggs on top.” Marie nodded again and the waiter gave up.
While I wouldn’t put it past Marie to order Bistec a lo Pobre at any time, about a month ago she started following the “Paleo” diet in an attempt to make herself less susceptible to migraines. The Paleo diet restricts you to foods that were available to Paleolithic hunters-and-gatherers – things like meat, eggs, fruits, and nuts. You can’t eat grains, legumes, salt, dairy, or refined sugar. The basic theory is that it’s better for people to eat the food our bodies evolved to eat, not foods we’ve introduced to our diets relatively recently.
And so far, for whatever reason, it seems to be helping her. Marie has been almost migraine-free since she started eating like a cave man. I certainly wasn’t above making sarcastic remarks about her fad diet, but if it works, it works. And it was a lot of fun to see someone so thin tear through those huge plates of food.
We slept late the following morning. All our tours were finished and we were happy to have nothing to do but relax. We’d originally planned to fly back to Santiago the next day but we liked San Pedro so much we thought about staying longer. We looked into other tours, we considered going on a marathon bike ride, and we even tried to figure out a way to visit the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat, just a two-day drive across the Bolivian border – but we couldn’t make it work with Marie’s remaining time.
Ultimately we decided to return to Santiago and from there make a quick side trip to Valparaiso. The shuttle we booked to take us from San Pedro to the Calama airport was scheduled to pick us up in front of our hotel between 5:00 and 5:30am, so once again Marie and I were awake before sunrise, shivering and bleary-eyed on the street in front of our hotel.