Blowing hot and cold
THERE'S only one way to get the perfect view of the El Tatio geysers - and that's to go at the crack of dawn, wearing five layers of weather-resistant clothing and braving a temperature of 10C below freezing. So that's exactly what we did.
We had been told that visiting the geyser field was one of the most spectacular excursions in the Atacama Desert. So despite the 5.30am departure from the Hotel de Larache, we got all layered up and ready to go, armed with pillows for the two-hour van trip.
The geothermal field, 4300m up in the Andes, is home to about 80 active geysers of varying sizes. As we approach the area, their plumes rise ahead of us, swirling in the air.
It's -13C at 7.30am and, within minutes of exiting the van, my lips have turned Smurf-blue. The number of layers I have on means I'm not cold, but it sure isn't warm as we meander through the geysers in the misty morning air.
Everywhere I look there are more geysers, each one different and each one steaming away in the sub-zero chill.
As the sun comes up, the temperature rises dramatically - as does a strange queasy feeling.
Ignoring it, we walk through more geysers, breathing in the steam and watching the hot pools bubble, froth and spit.
The sun shines through the geysers, creating an eerie light through the steam. People just feet in front become shadows and shapes as the geysers reach out of the ground and head skyward.
The rising sun is brilliant to see on the opposite part of the sky to the moon, which by 8am is only just settling into the horizon.
As we warm up and stop for a cuppa in the midst of the geysers, that strange sick feeling takes over and I realise I have been stung by the one creature you should avoid while travelling in the Atacama Desert - altitude sickness.
To begin with, it feels like a mild case of car sickness but, as it takes hold, it feels more like the worst possible hangover teamed with a migraine.
Our guide hands out cups of mate de coca, a herbal tea that curbs the symptoms. It helps, but the next leg of our journey, which involves almost two hours on an unsealed road, does not.
We leave the geysers and head south for the Puritama hot springs. As we drive, more of the group start to feel the effects of the altitude and it's a quiet trip.
We're lucky to have our own private spring to use, complete with a shady picnic area.
Everyone is quick to get into the water, which is a blissful, balmy 30C. To say it's crystal-clear is an understatement. The water is stunning and sitting soaking up its pureness, as well as the serenity of the environment, is wonderfully relaxing.
As if we're not spoiled enough, we're treated to a sumptuous mid-morning picnic of local salmon, cheeses, olives and even wine for those who are over the worst of the altitude sickness.
The area where the springs lie is at the bottom of a deep canyon, which is lush and green compared with the reddish-brown landscape of the desert. It really is a slice of paradise in the middle of nowhere.