After La Serena the road curls around an undulating landscape dotted with cacti. Behind us the road twists like a snake – to the side is the sea, a dark blue expanse with frothy white tips and as we drive we pass by windswept townships hugging the hills as if for dear life.
We were on our way to Punta de Choros, jump off point to visit the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humboldt, home to one of only a few colonies of the endangered Humboldt Penguin and a must-see attraction according to the guidebooks. It´s also home to a rich variety of seabirds such as comorants, boobies and gulls as well as sea-lions, sea otters and (frequently sighted) bottlenose dolphins and whales. The reserve – some 860 hectares managed by CONAF – is visited by boats staffed by local fishermen-turned-tour guides, and trips take you to the penguin stronghold of Isla Choros as well as Isla Damas, a smaller island with two beautiful white sand beaches.
We have been extremely excited about visiting because it is one of the last places to see the Humboldt Penguin, a cute little guy with a spotted chest and thick beak, that breeds along the coasts of Chile and Peru. There are only about 32,000 penguins left, a shocking statistic that places them in danger of extinction. Their population has taken a hit due to:
- Commercial Fishing – entanglement in fishing nets; decline of their main prey (sardines + anchovies)
- Prey fluctuations due to the effects of El Niño
- Introduction of pests (such as rats) and predators (Andean Fox);
- illegal trade (zoos and as pets)
- Human consumption (Northern Chile only)
- Industrial development such as mining; Punta de Choros is currently protesting of the Dominga mining project in motion for the area.
- Habitat destruction due to coastal development
- Habitat destruction due to the mining of guano by increasing mortality due to nest trampling and direct harvest
Information sourced from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
Chile has sought to better the odds by making reserves such as this one as well as eradicating rabbits from the island of Isla Choros; Santiago´s National Zoo also has a program to hatch abandoned eggs. However there is one more issue facing the penguins today more than any other, and that is the effect of tourist visitation. Penguins are extremely sensitive and not only do visitors trample their breeding sites, but they also deter them from breeding, meaning that any decision to visit the reserve comes with an ethical price to pay, particularly as Conaf has reported that other wildlife populations have suffered as well. This has become such a pressing issue that my 2009 8th edition of Lonely Planet dissuades tourists from disembarking at Isla Damas.
We turn off the highway and head down an axle-breaking dirt road towards Los Choros, a blink and you´ll miss it cluster of dusty houses in an area that dates back to the 1600´s and the early arrival of the Spanish settlers. This dry peninsula is one of the premier producers of Chilean olive oil and just outside the township there are family-run olive tree farms, where you can stop to pick up a bottle of olive oil, handmade extra virgin soap, locally sourced salt and even learn about the production process.
After Los Choros the dirt road continues past cabañas, sparsely placed along the way, until you arrive into Punta de Choros. Punta de Choros is nothing to look at – in fact most of the cabañas are basic affairs, with the restaurants serving up average (and below) food. There are two wharfs where tour boats embark from, and these were swarming with oblivious daytrippers and touts of the more aggressive variety. It was also extremely cold and windy, despite the fact that just a few hours before we´d been basking beneath the warm rays of La Serena´s sun. These winds haunted our stay, blowing and banging around our windows at night and forcing us back into our winter jackets and merino layers – and ultimately deterred us from our ocean trip: all boat were prohibited by the Navy from leaving the jetty.
We did make several trips to the neighboring beaches as the coastal scenery is both stunning and dramatic all white silky sand dunes and rocky outcrops. Spring – and this year´s unusual volume of rainfall – had prompted a staggering array of plants, flowers and insects which blossomed in every direction, creating a rich tapestry of reds, greens and yellows.
We were also lucky enough to see two herds of wild guanacos grazing near the roadside which was simply extraordinary.
We had a chat with local fisherman Freddy, who identified himself as part of the Chango indigenous group, which many sources label as extinct. ´Chango´ was a term given to the nomadic people that lived between Copiapo and Coquimbo that survived mainly on seafood. Freddy told us about his grandparents, who´d grown up living in makeshift portable houses that they moved along the coast, hunting guanacos and living off of goats and mariscos. When Freddy was a boy he dived beside mountains of locos (Chilean Abalone), a molusc that Chile highly prizes and which is strictly regulated by the state body of fisheries, Sernapesca. Today, this loco bounty no longer exists, although Punta de Choros irks much of its living from their extraction, making it one of the principal producers; each year 150 people are permitted a haul of 3000.
We hightailed it out of Punta de Choros with a few litres of Olive Oil and feeling slightly disappointed but also relieved at not having to make the ethical decision to visit the reserve. We were also excited to continue another 4 hours to the north, to the city of Copiapo and the start of the Atacama Desert.
Pictures below are of the Desierto Florido visible from the highway an hour or so after leaving Punta de Choros.
Where We Stayed
We rented a cabaña for two night on either side of our drive north. We used the services of Turismo Punta Choros, the more successful tour operator in the area. The cabañas were nothing amazing and certainly not five star, with dated decor and furniture BUT everything worked well, we had a kitchen, plenty of blankets, cable TV, parking, and hot water. I did stop at Cabañas Amarilis to chat with their owners and I highly recommend them. The cabins were lovely, centrally located with breakfast and wifi included in the rate.
The Nitty Gritty
- Bring cash as there are no cash machines and very few places accept credit cards.
- The road is NOT paved and very bumpy – we lost a tyre!
- September and October are the worst months to visit the reserve as there are high winds and turbulent seas
- Very busy on weekends, public holidays and in summer so book well in advance