Located in the foothills, the Termas de Puritama are a must for enjoying the healing benefits of nature. We will leave San Pedro to go to the Termas de Puritama. Once we arrive, we’ll park on top of the gorge and make the 5 minute walk to the hot springs. You’ll get a chance to swim and simply relax in this gorgeous and enriching environment.
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The Puritama hot springs are located about 30 kilometers north of San Pedro de Atacama, on the way toward El Tatio Geysers. The refreshing thermal springs remain about 25 to 30 degrees C, and the waters retain curative properties for rheumatic diseases. The water is heated with geothermal energy that also produces the nearby geysers. Puritama roughly translates as “water warms” in the native Kunza language. The Incas formerly visited the springs for their medicinal and restorative qualities. Now, natural vegetation surrounds the pools, and the site features dressing rooms, bathrooms and footbridges across the waters.
Hot springs emit water ranging in temperature from around 30 to 104 degrees C, and they can be found in two geologic settings. In the first instance, they occur where warm bedrock heats deep groundwater that flows up to the surface. The water carries the heat as it rises. The hot springs form in locations where faults or fractures allow a high-permeability passage for the water or where the water first passed through deep crust before emitting from the Earth’s surface. In the second circumstance in which hot springs occur, heated groundwater dissolves minerals from rock in geothermal regions where volcanism takes place currently or in the recent past. In this situation, magma or very hot rock resides close to the surface. In this second instance, the minerals serve a healing and refreshing purpose. Natural springs of geothermal water may appear brightly tinted in green, blue or orange hues due to thermophyllic bacteria that flourish in hot water and metabolize the sulphur containing minerals dissolved in groundwater.
There are several distinctive characteristics of geothermal regions and geologic features that form as a result of the eruption of hot water. Where soils are rich in volcanic ash and clay, hot water that rises to the surface often maintains a viscous slurry that fills bubbling mud pots. Steam that rises through this slurry often causes it to splatter. Also, colorful mounds may form near natural springs as the geothermal waters spill, cool and the dissolved minerals in the water precipitate.
On more rare occasions, geothermal water erupts from the ground as a geyser, which is a fountain of steam and hot water that bursts from the Earth’s surface episodically from a vent in the ground. Beneath a geyser, groundwater sinks into and fills a network of irregular fractures in hot rock. Heat transfers from the rock to the groundwater and makes the water’s temperature rise. The boiling point of water increases with the increasing pressure, and so the hot groundwater at great depth remains in liquid form even though its temperature is greater than the boiling point of water at Earth’s surface. As the extremely heated water rises through the network of passages to the surface, the pressure decreases until the water transforms into steam. The expansion of particles causes the water higher up to spill out of hole at the ground surface. After the spillage, the weight of the overlying water decreases rapidly. A sudden drop in pressure causes the super-hot water at depth to turn into steam instantly, and this steam quickly rises, ejecting all the water and steam above it out of the conduit in a geyser eruption. Once the conduit empties, the eruption ceases, and the conduit ﬁlls once again with water that gradually heats up, starting the eruptive cycle all over again.
Humans have inhabited the Atacama desert for over 10,000 years, but the first organized tribes began to roam the region as hunter-gatherers about 7,000 years ago. The Loa River, the main water source of the desert, sustained agricultural and llama-herding villages dispersed along it and around San Pedro de Atacama from around 900 BC. Around Lake Titicaca, the Tiwanaku culture rose to prominence, and its influence is reflected today in local textile iconography. As this group collapsed, the Atacamenos dominated the desert beginning in 1000 BC through developing a system to transport goods from the coast to the Andean highland. Then, the Inca Empire absorbed this group in the 15th century.
The origin of the desert’s title, “Atacama,” remains a topic of debate. Some attribute the name to the Tacama duck, which is indigenous to northern Chile and the Peruvian coast and flaunts a black and white coat. Others trace its etymology to the indigenous Kunza language, which has a word, “Atchamar,” meaning “head of the country.” It is how the Atacamenos referred to their land.
Tales of gold somewhere south of the Incan Empire drew the first Europeans to the Atacama desert. Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro first set food in the region, and the invasion of the Spanish led to the downfall of the Incas and Atacamenos, who resisted the European rule. The Atacamenos were massacred in large numbers before signing an agreement to remain subjects of the Spanish later in the 15th century.
Chile claimed the Atacama desert as part of its territory as a result of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), and it labeled the indigenous groups in the area as Chilean nationals. Tribes were torn apart as the national borders between Chile, Peru and Bolivia broke ties. Many of the Atacamenos engaged in silver nitrate and copper mining in the 19th century, but the silver nitrate industry collapsed in the early 20th century and it resulted in an economic crisis. In 1933, the Chilean government finally recognized the Atacamenos as one of the nine indigenous groups in Chile. However, the state never fairly redistributed the tribe’s ancestral land, which they view as sacred.
Recently, tourism has created a new economic opportunity for the indigenous groups and other peoples in Atacama. Cultural tourism provides a viable source of income for locals in small villages that practice llama herding or mining, and some find they no longer need to migrate to larger cities like Calama to support themselves and their families.
San Pedro rests at 2,407 meters, which is just over the threshold for altitude sickness. At high altitudes, the air pressure drops, and with each breath you take, there is less oxygen than at sea level entering your blood. The effect of this reduced blood oxygen level varies depending on the person, but people commonly report symptoms of dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness and loss of appetite. Fittingly, altitude sickness has been described as being like a very bad hangover. Some people also have trouble sleeping at high altitude, due to “periodic breathing” (your body alternating between deep and shallow breaths). Your breathing might even pause completely, making you wake up with a gasp. This is called an “apnoea,” and you needn’t worry too much about it.
Your body will naturally adapt to the lower oxygen level by making more blood cells to carry oxygen around, and by taking deeper, more frequent breaths. Acclimatization typically takes three to five days, after which time you should stop feeling the effects of altitude.
The best defense against altitude sickness is a gradual ascent. If you start feeling altitude sickness the best thing to do is to descend. But if your itinerary doesn’t allow for that, stay where you are. In other words, if you start feeling any symptoms of altitude sickness, don’t climb any higher. Drinking water before and during your travel can also help. Dehydration is one of the main causes of altitude sickness. You will naturally breathe more frequently at a high altitude to get more oxygen into your blood, but because the air is also dry you will lose more water from exhaling than you’re gaining from breathing in. Aim for 2-3 liters of water a day before you travel to pre- hydrate your body. Keep this going once you’re at the high altitude. You can also ask your doctor about altitude sickness remedies. Some doctors will prescribe Diamox / Acetazolamide, which you should start taking a couple of days before arriving at altitude and continue for 48 hours after arrival. One alternative to Diamox is Exedrin Migraine, which just treats the headache side of altitude sickness. When you arrive in Atacama, eat a high-carb, low protein diet, avoid alcohol and coffee, and drink coca tea, for which you can buy the leaves in many San Pedro convenience stores. However, most people only feel the effects of altitude very mildly, so you shouldn’t let concerns about altitude ruin your upcoming trip.
The sun is almost always shining on San Pedro de Atacama, and the desert experiences very little rainfall. Its warmest month is January, when temperatures reach an average high of 77 F (25 C) and a low of 46 F (8 C). Its coldest month is July, when temperatures usually remain around 70 F (11 C) during midday and drop below freezing at night. The mountainous area near El Tatio Geysers remains very cold year-round, especially in the morning, so it’s best to wear several layers. Make sure to pack a towel and warm clothes to put on after your swim.
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