Upon registering my motorcycle’s mileage clock 10,000 miles since hitting the Americas five months previous, without conscious volition I stopped seeing our trip as an extended holiday. This had now become a way of life for my partner and I. The honeymoon period wasn’t altogether over, it was simply the start of a new chapter having learnt the basic ropes of two-wheeled travel.
Namely journeying into the unknown and coping with all its capricious twists and turns – coming out the other end better off for it. Travel for me is one thing you can buy that will make you rich. South America so far was adorned by many pleasurable experiences mingled with the odd misadventure thrown in for good measure. We were able to carry all we needed on the back of two motorcycles, which wonderfully, excluded all those unnecessary societal burdens. I’m done with those.
The 50-mile ride from San Pedro de Atacama took us north in ascent to the Antofagasta region. The sky was an animated arrangement of clouds straight from an episode opening of The Simpsons. En route to El Tatio, we were ungrudgingly slowed by a herd of goats consuming the width of the road. Watching the mature ones amble and kids toddling along bum-to-bum, my heart went out to commuters back home in murderous bumper-to-bumper traffic. Straggling behind a frisky band of bearded goats was my kind of traffic jam.
In eventually skirting around the herd we blasted through our first ford of water; my lower half got drenched. The splash I’d zealously made soaked my legs trickling into the top my boots. Wet feet forgotten, we were favored with clusters of vicuña dotted on the mountainous plains – a wild relative of the llama, supposedly valued for its fine silky wool. Like the llama, vicuña were a lot less skittish than the similar looking but larger guanaco. It gave us a moment to marvel at them in the altiplano high Andean pastures against a big sky backdrop.
My bike had been crying out for some much needed attention but with everything else going on around me, I’d neglected to notice that a battery connection had become loose. I was too happy to be astride the saddle bearing witness to deep yellow grassy plains curving in from the left and red rock rearing up from the right against a blindingly blue sky. Landscape of this simple but immense magnitude in a three-part colour scheme set to ‘vibrant’ was a tonic to the system.
I spent the remaining four miles towards our destination in anxiety of presaging disaster. Cue the rider lurching while enduring a motorcycle’s resistance to ride, my bike was not a happy soul. Ordinarily, I would have sought instant roadside assistance from my partner, a self-taught mechanic at my constant beck and call. But so close to El Tatio, I gently and slowly coaxed my motorcycle over an unforgiving four-mile stretch of the coarsest corrugations, relentless ruts and up hill sandy struggles. She neither thanked me nor denied me; my F650GS was forever my perfect riding companion. I owed everything to her and of course my partner’s pre-requisite knowledge of what makes my two wheels tick.
Back at serious elevation we rocked up at El Tatio, a geothermic basin. My motorcycle had out-performed herself and Jason rapidly remedied her ailments. Trying my utmost to shun the fatigue, dodge the dizziness and other bothersome symptoms of altitude, we surveyed our surroundings. “Oh look!” I said, pointing to four grey foxes advancing on reddish legs that were long staring at us if not any potential meals at hand. We were in geyser seventh heaven, thanks to the frozen underground rivers making contact with sizzling hot rocks.
I tentatively asked a member of the Tatio Mallku Society whose job it was to administer the natural heritage – a woman in charge of patrolling the activity around such fragile ground – if we might sleep in her stone floored office. She responded warmly and would accommodate our request for a negligible fee. The lady seemed obliging so I also inquired if there might be a hot shower nearby. She smiled knowingly, pointed a mile down the hill and kindly explained, “There is hot spring.” I laughed heartily at the self-evidence all around me and mentally applauded the utilization of natural resources. Without toiletries in tow, we headed straight there for a dip. By late afternoon, the ambient temperature had to be in falling single figures but what the heck, the pool was steaming away at a ‘Come to daddy’ 40 degrees Celsius.
Before reaching the hot spring, we took the time to recce the place. Fumaroles bubbled all over the geyser field, plumes of scalding hot water gushed upwards and arresting towers of steam rose from the rocks making a spectacular sight. Especially so, as we watchfully weaved through on our wheels. The towers of boiling steam were intensely striking first thing, contrasting with an air temperature of -12 degrees and shrouding my partner amongst a sea of other bodies in the eggy stench of fetid vapors. At 4,320 metres above sea level, we were gazing on the world’s highest geysers. I had forgotten to bring my ‘boil in the bag’ rice, I’d just have to plunge myself in instead.
By dusk all the tourists were disappearing leaving the hot spring serenely still, just for us. My heart was racing and I found it difficult to slow my resting pulse; acclimatization was strenuous work-in-progress I mused. The hot spring soothed and settled me. Its hot surface water caressed my neck, my body remained lukewarm below the waterline but once my toes gently disturbed the sand on the bottom, it got ‘feet hopping’ hot again. It stopped the compulsive musings compounded by the head banging at elevation and emptied all thought from the hinterland of my mind. Like the tourist turbulent muddy pool upon our arrival; when left undisturbed sooner or later stopped rippling.
I surfaced the next morning like a bear roused from hibernation, lethargically coming out of my cocoon. Our one-day sojourn in El Tatio extended into an unplanned second day. The afternoon saw us race back toward the geysers; there were over 500 of the thermal manifestations. A lot of them boiling away at 86 degrees Celsius, less than a kettle’s boiling point at sea level due to the altitude. We stuck our fingers in as many bubbling mud pools, perpetual spouters, steamy waterholes and hot springs as we dared. With the Andean gulls soaring and not a soul in sight, we took our wheels and rode around again within this unique and striking site. A befitting depiction of our two-day stopover in El Tatio? A toe-tingling sizzler!