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San Pedro de Atacama - Geysers el Tatio - ER

Not at all what I planned!

View High Altitude Landscapes Tour - Bolivia, Chile & Argentina 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I wake with a start at 03:40 from my phone ringing. When I pick it up, there is no-one there. Grrr. Struggling to go back to sleep, I might as well get up, as we have a 05:00 pick-up for today's excursion.

Geyser el Tatio

I sleep most of the way here, and feel totally out of it when we arrive at the geysers. It is still dark, anyway, so nothing to photograph. David goes off with Ariane, our local Chilean guide, while I stay in the car with Gaston, who will be with us now for the rest of the trip through Chile and Argentina. I wait for some more light before grabbing a few shots through the open window, as that is all I have the energy for. To say I feel rough is an understatement.


A few of David's photos:





Eventually, I brave the world outside the car with my camera, but at 4,320 metres above sea level, the altitude, combined with the lack of oxygen (around 30% less than at sea level), my chest infection, and the cold breeze, means I only venture a few metres before getting back inside the warm vehicle. The thermometer in the car tells me it is -7 °C, but it feels way colder out there.


The field holds over 500 geo-thermals, although only 80 or so are active geysers, some of which can reach heights greater than 10 m.


The geysers perform at their best at these temperatures early in the morning before the sun warms up, and the fumaroles reach a high of 85 °C (which is the boiling point at this altitude).


This is the third-largest geyser field in the world (after Yellowstone and Dolina Geizerov) and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. It is also the highest (in altitude). It is certainly enormous, and when David and Ariane return, Gaston does a drive-by of some of the main performers for me to photograph them from the comfort of the car.




The inactive volcano of the same name


Gaston and Ariana have brought a picnic breakfast for us, with everything we might need.


David makes a cairn from the ever-present rocks.


Vado Putana

On the way back to San Pedro de Atacama, we stop at a nature reserve with some stunning views and a few interesting birds and animals.




Andean Goose

Crested Ducks

Giant Coot

Giant Coot with babies

Nest building

Darwen's Rhea



Wild Donkeys

I have been feeling progressively more and more ill as the morning has gone on, and both Gaston and Ariane are very concerned about me. I find myself gasping for breath between bouts of coughing. I suggest that I go to a pharmacy to get some more antibiotics, maybe something stronger than Amoxycillin, such as Clarithromycin, which has helped me in the past when I had pneumonia. Ariane, however, insists that I should be seen by a doctor, so we head back into town.

The road leading to San Pedro de Atacama offers some impressive scenery.


A vicuña crosses the road


Machuca Church in the small settlement of the same name

After dropping Ariane off, Gaston takes me to the local clinic, which is through a small doorway in a mud wall, into a courtyard where we are issued with face masks before we are allowed to continue. This does not help my ability to breathe, of course.

Gaston checks me in, explains what is wrong with me, and the nursing staff take my vital stats. They are, as expected, very low.


We are told there will be a two-hour wait to be seen by the doctor, so we take a seat in the tired-looking waiting room which has two comfortable chairs that have seen better days, and a couple of long backless wooden benches.


After just a few minutes I am taken into the emergency room and seen by a doctor. He doesn't speak a word of English (none of the staff do), and my Spanish is only marginally better, so I am very grateful that Gaston is here to translate. The doctor shakes my hand, looks me in the eyes and tells me (via Gaston) “You have pretty eyes”. Not exactly what I was expecting him to say, but at my age I take any compliment I can get.

After going through a range of questions, the doctor agrees with me that it is unlikely to be altitude sickness (the cough started before we left the (relative) lowlands), but is most likely to be bronchitis. He instructs the nurses to hook me up with intravenous cortisone, followed by a saline solution; and attach me to an oxygen tank, which is alternated with a nebuliser.


La Casona Restaurant

Once I am settled into one of the two beds in the emergency room, Gaston goes back to the car (David has been babysitting the luggage, as I left all my camera gear in the car when I went to the clinic, and I really didn't want it left on display in an empty vehicle!) They take our stuff to the hotel and go for some lunch. David very kindly takes a couple of pictures of the restaurant for me, but forgets to photograph the food.



I am still in the emergency room, of course, where I suddenly hear screaming and wailing, and the entire clinic goes into overdrive, with everyone dropping whatever they happen to be doing. A young lifeless baby is rushed into the next bed, and the staff all crowd around the mother and baby. For what seems like an eternity, there is a frantic hush of medics running around, attaching all sorts of machinery to the hapless baby, while the mother is beside herself, crying “Mia!” “Mia!” praying and sobbing.

I feel like I have been unwittingly sucked into this awful drama, and daren't as much as breathe, as I listen out for signs that the baby is being successfully resuscitated. Eventually, painful, desperate whimpers emit from baby Mia, followed by howls of agony. This turns into gasping sobs, and eventually more restful weeping. By this time I am a blubbering wreck, and I can't even imagine what Mia's poor mother is going through. Once the baby is sleeping reasonably calmly, the clinic once again returns to normality.

After six hours in the clinic, I see a specialist, who thankfully speaks some English. He gives me breathing exercises (which I already knew about through my dad's COPD), and asks numerous questions. I am finally allowed to leave the clinic, with strict instructions to return tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the insurance company phones David (having been instructed by Jim from Undiscovered Destinations), who in turn instructs an Assistance Company. The latter has also been in contact with the clinic and been provided with details of my illness and treatment, and have liaised with their own doctor to agree on a course of action for me. I am told I am not fit enough to fly commercially at the moment, and that I should avoid going to higher altitudes if at all possible. I am not allowed to leave San Pedro de Atacama until I have been discharged by the clinic here, so Gaston arranges for us to stay another night at the Terrantai Lodge. I am very impressed how so many organisations are talking to each other (the insurance company, Undiscovered Destinations, Socompa (the local agent), Gaston, the hotel and the clinic), which means that all the necessary adjustments happen as if by magic.

Gaston takes me back to the hotel and I settle into a much more comfortable (and private) bed, while he takes David to a pharmacy to collect all the medicines prescribed to me.


I immediately start the course of antibiotics, steroids, and cetirizine, gulp down some cough medicine, and use the inhaler as suggested.

By this stage I am feeling really quite hungry, not having eaten anything since the picnic at 8 o'clock this morning. Unfortunately, the hotel does not serve food in the evenings, and as I really am not up to going anywhere for dinner this evening, David goes into town to get a takeaway pizza. The staff at Terrantai kindly let us eat it in the reception area (which doubled as the breakfast restaurant), and even provide plates, cutlery, and complimentary drinking water.


That's me done for the day, and what an adventurous day it has been. It's when an incident like this happens that I am grateful for the incredible service that Undiscovered Destinations and their ground handlers provide. Had we travelled independently, this would most likely have turned into a nightmare experience, especially as neither of us don't speak Spanish. As it now stands, it is a mere bump in the road on this amazing journey, with everyone else sorting out any necessary logistics. This is why I keep booking our trips through Undiscovered Destinations.


Posted by Grete Howard 09:58 Archived in Chile Tagged birds church chile vicuna geothermal picnic pizza cairns geysers donkeys atacama south_america ostrich er hospital doctor san_pedro_de_atacama altitude wetlands coot viscacha pharmacy goose nurses machuca steroids antibiotics medicines mud_pools rhea geysers_el_tatio undiscovered_destinations cortisone picnic_breakfast face_mask take_away high_altitude clinci bubbling_mud vado_putana insurance_company emergency_room a&e accident_and_emergency vital_stats las_casona assistance_company socompa certrizine cough_medicine inhaler

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Quite a day, to say the least. To start with you took me back to the amazing El Tatio geysers, which were one of the main reasons I wanted to visit San Pedro after reading about them in John McCarthy and Brian Keen's excellent 'Between Extremes'. They didn't disappoint, so I'm sorry you weren't well enough to visit them properly. We also stopped at the wetlands and at Machuca, which you seem to have skipped - because you were ill or was it not included?
It's great to read how well looked after you were and I agree, that's one of the real benefits of booking through a good company like Undiscovered Destinations. Not to have to deal with all of that is a real bonus - you could focus on getting better and David could focus on helping you :) And what a drama with that baby - I'm so glad to read that she recovered, I was holding my breath!

by ToonSarah

What a day!!!!!

by Ils1976

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