You had me at Penguins.
When looking up things to do in the La Serena area Isla Damas was definitely high on my list of things I wanted to do. Even though we had rented a car it was advised not to drive to Punta de Choros, the port city to Isla Damas in the Pinuino de Humboldt National Reserve.
I decided to go with a tour group EcoTourismo out of convenience. There are busses that go to Punta de Choros but once you get there you might have to wait hours till there is a boat going out with enough people, if any boat goes out at all.
All the tour companies recommended that you booked in the beginning of your stay because they often cancel because of weather conditions. This was another reason why I wanted to go with a tour because they would know if the weather was okay to go out or not.
There are a few companies that will take you to Isla Damas. I went with EcoTourismo because they spoke English. Another company Tour Luna said they somewhat spoke English which means no they don’t but they included an Olive Vineyard tour for the same price. I opted to actually know what was going on and took the English tour sans vineyard.
The bus came to pick me up around 8:30 am. It takes about 2 hours to drive to Punta de Choros from La Serena. About half way there you turn off onto a paved road that has sand on it (this is what I assumed to be the area you needed the 4 wheel drive.) Growing up on dirt roads this one didn’t seem too bad but since we rented a car I am still glad we didn’t take the car down this road.
There are 4 regions of Coquimbo province the reserve is located in the fourth region. It is a very humid climate with 80% humidity however the water is very cold because it comes up from the ANtarctic which is perfect for those little penguins.
In La Serena they have a morning haze that covers the city from the warm water coming from the Andes mixing with the cold water of the Pacific ocean. There are no underground rivers and rain is scarce. This leaves the cactus plant as one of the only sources of water for the animals.
A long the way we stopped to view some wild alpacas. Our lovely tour guide explained several interesting facts about them. There are two types of wild alpacas in Chile. The huacaya and the suri alpacas. The huacaya alpacas are more common. Most huacaya alpacas live in Patagonia which is the only place that is legal to hunt alpaca because there are so many of them. 1500 a year are allowed to be hunted in Patagoia. In the rest of Chile they are protected. Alpacas tend to travel in herds of 12 and eat fruit and cactus.
The wild alpacas were a real treat for me as it was the first time I have seen one. I am certain it will not be the last time.
I do want to point out that the drive itself is amazing with rolling landscapes and endless sand.
We finally make it to Punta de Choros where are guide gave us 5 minutes to use the restroom then herded us to the boat. He gave us all life jackets and a quick warning not to get on the boat when the waves were rocking it too high or too low.
I glaced at the boat and saw the waves were rocking the boat a lot but my fellow boat mates seemed to be getting on the boat easily. I was one of the last people to get on the boat and it seemed to be only moving rapidly up and down. The guide yelled “vamos vamos vamos!” (GO GO GO!) and I went to jump. As I was in mid jump the boat rocked swiftly down and the guide said “NO!” but it was too late I was already mid jump and landed on the boat quite proud of myself for not falling. I think I gave our guide a heart attack. I know my heart was pumping fast. If I would have just stepped on to the boat I would have surely fell either into the boat and hurt myself or outside the boat and been stuck between the boat and the dock. Lucky for me I jumped.
The boat ride to the first island was winding and cold but I got excited when I saw the water littered with little birds I thought were baby penguins until they started to fly away. They were still cute.
We finally made it to the first island but we were zooming past sea lion after sea lion. I was worried that we were not going to get that close to the animals the way we were going. Turns out we just going to the end to turn around and get a better look.
I still had to use my zoom on max on my camera to capture the animals but in real life looking at them seemed close enough. The sea lions were sprawled out on the rocks every where and very easy to see. A female sea lion spends most of its life pregnant.
Our tour guide spent a lot of time talking about the different birds in the reserve. The pelican is by far the biggest bird on the island. The booby bird was great to watch waddle around. The most interesting bird by far is the Guanay Cormorant nicknamed the million dollar bird in Peru because the Guanay produces guano which provides 60% of Peru’s revenue. Guano is the excrement of seabirds used as fertilizer.
Of course the highlight of the tour is the Humboldt penguins. If you have seen them in the zoo and liked them they are 1000 times better in the wild. They waddle around climbing rocks with their little wings. Too cute.
After you get your fill of all things cute you get taken to Isla Damas. Here you get about an hour to walk around and take pictures. There are penguins on this island but you have to keep on the marked path so you cannot get to the penguins. This is also were the famous Isla Damas beach is. However, it was way too cold to swim in September.
Then it is back to the main island. We were extremely lucky to see a bunch of bottlenose dolphins. We stopped the boat while the dolphins swam all around us playing around the boat showing off. Some sea lions decided they wanted to show off as well and got closer to the boat. Our guide told us that in the summer there might be 50 boats out so the dolphins won’t be there. However, going in the off season we were the only boat so they were more then happy to come close to the boat.
Back to the main land and I had to get off the boat again. The waves seemed to not have let up and they had to basically grab everyone by both arms and lift them out of the boat. My heart racing remembering the time when I got into the boat.
15km from Punta de Choros is were we set off for lunch. It is a nice campsite that only tours and people staying at the site can eat at. Our meal was big with an appetizer, entree, desert and drink included. Afterwords, we were allowed about a half hour to relax on giant hammocks placed around the campsite.
Conclusion: In all I really liked the tour. At times I felt as I was being rushed but the information our guide provided was very interesting and useful.
Advantages of going in the off season: We were the only boat of the day so we got the place to ourselves as well as we got to see the bottlenose dolphins.
Disadvantages of going in the off season: It is the same price as high season. We could not swim in the water because it was too cold. It was cold on the boat. It would be easier to catch your own bus to Punta de Choros and finding a boat to cruise around the islands as there would be a lot more boats.
The Pinuino de Humboldt National Reserve is comprised of three islands: Chanaral, Damas and Choros. It became a National Reserve in 1990. The reserve has the largest population of Humboldt Penguins in Chile (about 60% of all Humboldt Penguins live here.) Humboldt Penguins are a small breed of penguin, ranging from 55 cm to 75 cm. You can tell if they are Humboldt by the dark strips on their torso. They spend about 60% of their time in the water and live in caves along the coast hiding from the sea lions that eat them. The average humboldt penguin lives for 25 years. They lay about 2 to 3 eggs around April and October, the main nesting times but usually only 1 egg will survive.
Other then the Humboldt Penguin you can find sea lions, sea otters, bottlenose dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and many varieties of birds.