Our sleepy busload of tourists watched with increasing interest as our last passenger frantically tried to unlock the gate to his hotel compound so he could join us. In exasperation, he threw his pack over the fence and scampered to the top. Our bus driver and guide helped him down the 8 foot drop and we welcomed him onboard with a round of applause.
It was now 4:30 am and our delayed start made our driver even more determined to beat the other tour buses to the El Tatio geysers. Our local guide Oscar warned us that perhaps the road to El Tatio “was not the best”. Our teeth rattled as we bounced along rough gravel roads at high speeds in foggy darkness, over streams and around hairpin turns - Ay Caramba! Ninety minutes later, our driver proudly deposited us at Park Headquarters. We staggered off the bus to the banos and to pay the park entrance fee. We climbed back onboard for another five-minute drive to reach the geysers.
The geysers themselves are not magnificent but the fields are vast (3rd largest in the world), high altitude (same as Pike's Peak summit), and in view of the magnificent Andes at sunrise. After an hour of meandering around geysers while munching breakfast, we were driven to a second set of geysers with thermal baths. Many intrepid souls were enjoying the experience, despite lack of changing rooms and frigid external temperatures.
Our descent was more leisurely. We visited a small Machego village with delicious cheese empanadas and tender barbecued llama kebabs (although I felt sad petting one cute llama and then eating another a few minutes later - but curiosity got the better of me).
When Nicola saw the outdoor plumbing she exclaimed "A loo with a view!" The rushes mark the Rio Purificado along which some hiked to see a 700 year old cactus (Teresa saw too many cacti in her West Texas days and we decided to rest and read on the bus instead).