Here at The Ungraceful Guide, we believe that nothing beats a day out with nature. Whether it’s simply hiking through a valley, crawling up the side of a volcano, getting lost in the jungle or breathing the fresh air of the rainforest.
Better yet, as two extreme animal lovers, throw in some animals or wildlife and we’re all over it. Regular readers of our blog and followers of our social media know that too well. If taking the day out in Costa Rica to hike with over 940 dogs wasn’t a giveaway, maybe it was the numerous tours we’ve taken to visit and view wildlife in its natural habitat, such as the Whale Watching in Ecuador or the Pampas Tour in Bolivia.
There is a running joke on our Snapchat, where Luke is the animal whisperer and I am Dr. Doolittle. Our followers never miss a chance to take the piss out of our obsession. We even carry dog kibbles everywhere we go, for when we meet the lonely and friendly street dog. No, seriously.
So yeah, the point I’m clearly trying to make (if it wasn’t bloody obvious enough) is that we love animals. Way more than humans. And when it comes to “tight” travelling, it’s probably the one and only thing that we are willing to risk and blow our week’s budget on. Without any hesitation.
Even though we tightened the purse strings even more so in the overly priced long strip of Chile, there was no way we were willing to neglect the chance to visit the Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve in Punta Choros, north of La Serena city.
The very idea of a national reserve, solely belonging to nature; the wild residents and its neighbouring sea life to include hundreds of Humboldt penguins (the cute little feckers!) large black, brown and white sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, orcas and thousands of species of birds.
Our favourite part about this highly appealing tour is not only the fact that there is a quota of how many visitors can visit per day but also the rangers who patrol both the land and sea. Passionate, determined, observant, and strict. Oh so strict.
Our least favourite? Some of the idiot tourists who take part in the tour, and the high price!
There are plenty of tours from La Serena to choose from. Running every day and starting at the ridiculous cost of 40,000CP (€57). I mean our two-night, three-day Pampas Tour in the Bolivian Amazon, including accommodation, three meals per day, a guide and incredible sights, didn’t even cost double that!
OK, so the cost includes pickup and transport from La Serena to Punta Choros, the park entry ticket, a boat trip and a lunch but come on, we still cannot justify that price.
Thankfully the DIY method, as always, comes at nearly half that price. Yes, only nearly! Still, way over our budget, we bit the bullet and coughed up the 25,000CP (€35). Well, we managed to swing it for 22,000CP (€31) which we will explain why, but that extra €4 doesn’t get you far in Chile, so no major savings there.
This price only includes transport, park entry ticket and the boat trip. We packed a lunch and had it al fresco on the Damas Island beach. Winning!
Right, less ranting and more sharing of information. The reason why you’re here (and thank you for being here by the way!).
Table of Contents
From La Serena to Punta Choros:
The biggest cost involved is the transport from La Serena to Punta Choros at 9,000CP (€12.85) for a return ticket, or 4,500CP (€6.42) one way. This public service leaves only once per day, at 9 a.m., from outside the Panaderia y Rosticeria Los Griegos on Calle Francisco de Aguirre.
Since there are no further services, we suggest that you either arrive at the Panaderia (departure location) from 8:15 a.m. and queue for the ‘Bus de Punta Choros’ or pre-book a seat. This bus fills up fast, and we saw people being turned away.
To save your seat, call (or WhatsApp) +56997170122 the night before. For those without WhatsApp or credit, top up and use Skype as this won’t even charge 1c per minute. You could ask your hostel or host to call on your behalf. Our hostel happily called and arranged our booking for us at no extra effort or cost.
Once booked, arrive at the departure location between 8.40 and 8.45 am as they allow advanced bookings to board first. Think of it like Ryanair’s awkward ‘priority boarding’ service.
When leaving the bus in Punta Choros, book a return seat as this is the only service running back to La Serena. It leaves Punto Choros at 3 p.m.
Getting to the Islands:
Arriving safe and sound in Punta Choros, at around 11 a.m., next up is to book a boat and buy an entry ticket to access the national reserve.
Book a Boat
There will be touts waiting at the bus to sell you boat trips for 10,000CP per person (€14.28) but don’t feel under pressure to take the first boat or offer shouted at you. We held back a little and waited for the first boat to fill up, it was a large covered boat with at least 15 people on it.
Instead, we visited the ‘Boleteria’ up on the right-hand side, the opposite way to the pier. Boats run throughout the day, leaving from 9 am-4 pm and there will be plenty of services. However, in order to make the return bus leave at 3 pm, aim to be on a boat by 12.30 pm (this is the latest, latest!).
Purchase a Park Ticket
With the boat ticket in hand, now visit the Conaf office to purchase the national reserve entry ticket. Locals pay 3,000CP (€4.30) and us tourists pay 6,00CP (€9). This was where we saved a little. Luke used his Irish charm mixed with his pitch-perfect Spanish and slid in a few Chilean slang words we picked up during our two weeks in Taltal and we got the local price.
Not so easy for everyone, no, but Luke did succeed in the end by saying he was misinformed at a tourist office (this is true!) and we were told the entry price was 3,000CP flat fee, that no one mentioned there was a tourist rate. It took no effort, no squabble and no eyelids were batted. The ranger was sound, and he happily charged us the local rate. So I guess, while this may not work for all, it’s certainly worth a go!
Otherwise, think of the fee as a contribution to conserving the natural environment. It’s a feel-good donation and not just a charge (lie to yourself!).
To find the office, follow the blue wooden signposts, opposite the pier. Show your pre-booked boat ticket here and receive your entry ticket. Now with both tickets in hand, head to the pier and wait until the captain calls the boat name and number.
The Tour Itself:
The tour usually starts with an hour-and-a-half boat ride around two of the three main Islands, Choros and Chañaral. Keep an eye out for dolphins on your way towards the islands and if you spot anything, be sure to let the captain know so he can get closer, without disturbing of course.
We managed to spot a dolphin pod, there were so many of them! Trying to contain my squeals the driver dragged the boat alongside their swimming trail, but always keeping a safe and legal distance. This is a protected national park after all!
Let it be known that the tour is mostly in Spanish. You could get lucky and there may be an English speaker on board willing to translate, but for those with little of the local language, lots of information regarding the islands, formation and quirky facts will fall on deaf ears.
However, this didn’t ruin the experience for us. Even with Luke as a fluent Spanish speaker, we joke all the time saying in Chile, they do not speak Spanish, they speak Chileano. Luke found it difficult to understand so we just kept our eyes peeled and awkwardly laughed whenever the other passengers did.
During the island jaunt, you will float through the stench of bird shit, so thick you can taste it but with that comes the thousands of species of birds flying overhead, or perched and peering from the rocks.
Be on the lookout across the island bed for the Humboldt penguins, the rocks and small rocky islands for sea lions near the coastline for otters. Depending on the time of year you visit, it is also possible to see orcas.
Next up is a visit to the Caribbean-esque Damas Islands. Bleach white beaches, turquoise waters and unusually colourful fauna and cacti. There is a friendly park ranger to answer questions, explain any rules and share some information but again, all in Spanish.
Here you will have an hour to explore. Visit the nearby mirador for an Instagram-worthy picture and a close-up view of turkey vultures or take one of the two trails that loop around the island, the longest walking trail being 40 minutes.
After some nice views and a short walk, since we had lunch with us, we hit the beach for a mini picnic and chilled in the sun until our captain called us back onboard.
The extremely important thing to note is to respect the island and everything that grows on it. Do not even attempt or be tempted to pick a flower. Another strict rule is that swimming is prohibited, and they are serious about this one. Even dipping your feet into the water is a big no, no! As the ranger said, “There is a unique ecosystem here and humans are not a part of it”. Despite his warnings, one of the passengers from our boat walked into the sea, claiming he wasn’t swimming. This resulted in the friendly ranger turning into a hulk and a pretty embarrassing bollocking for the visitor. What an absolute gobshite.
Today we finally got to see why so many locals speak so highly of the Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve, and it’s not just ’cause the name sounds like something from Harry Potter. Although wizard-less, the national reserve and its three main islands; Damas, Choros and Chañaral are certainly magical. Where thousands of species of birds and hundreds of mammals all call home. We enjoyed the cloudy but hot day exploring the seas where we raced bottlenose dolphins and fawned over the little tuxedo-clad waddlers. The beaches are pristine and the waters are translucent, as this is a place where human activity is restricted (and thank God that it is!). Due to its delicate ecosystem, only a certain quota of visitors are allowed per day, and the likes of swimming is strictly forbidden. No matter how inviting that water looks. We left feeling a little heroic when Luke spotted a sea lion cub tangled in what looked like a fishing line. Slightly distressed we brought it to the attention of our captain who called the rangers, and together they acted fast. So now Luke refuses to be called anything but the “Sea Lion King” and declares that all must “Mufasa” to protect the circle of life. ° ° #chile #damasislands #humboldt #puntachoros #pinguinodehumboldt #isladamas #chilegram
A post shared by The Ungraceful Guide (@ungracefulguide) on Dec 28, 2017 at 7:23 pm PST
So please, don’t visit a national reserve to disturb it in any way, be kind to Pachamama. Sure wouldn’t you want guests to respect your home?
The boat will return to the port before 3 p.m., where the bus will be waiting to bring you back to La Serena. It will most likely drop you outside the Japanese gardens in La Serena, not too far from the bus terminal or plaza and you should arrive by 6 pm.
Have fun guys!