21 February 2010
Travel: Chile: Isla Choros and the Humboldt Penguin Preserve

We finished up in Pisco Elqui on Monday morning, after doing a brief photowalk and talking to our hostel's manager. Sasha asked him what he'd do between La Serena and Copiaopo, where we were going next, and he started explaining the Isla Damas. There was a tour, it seemed, where you could be taken to a small island off the coast of Chile and see dolphins. It sounded tropical. We decided to look into it.

Getting to the Isla Damas is very simple. You drive a couple of hours from La Serena to Copiapo, but turn west into the southernmost reaches of the Atacama Desert. Coming down from the mountains and driving through small gorges, you find a gravel road that, at times, transforms into simple track over the bare earth. We took this an additional hour west until we reached the coast and found a fishing village called Punta Choros. The village is essentially a sandlot with a few colorful rows of houses, cabanas, bodegas and churches. 

Once there, we were told, we had to find a fisherman or a company that would take us to Isla Damas. Only, Isla Damas is great, but what you really want to see is Isla Choros, which is right next to Isla Damas. Choros is part of a Chilean penguin preserve. We had lunch and surveyed the situation. 

"Hiking boots? It's supposed to be a beach trip."
"And a Windbreaker." 
"I wish it weren't so cloudy."
"Why? It looks like great penguin weather."

On very flimsly pretenses, I recently bought a red shock-resistent water-proof coast guard watch. I think this watch was feeling restless until Choros. Beach trip? This was an expedition. You needed government permits to go on that island, government permits that we forgot to buy. I followed Sasha down a long jetty to the neon yellow steps of the boarding dock. A digny motored alongside the platform, tossed by the erratic tide, rising and dropping several feet in front of us.

"This looks like a terrible idea."
"I love it." 

The boat whipped through the 5-foot swells and seaspray to the calmer area near Choros. There we sat, maybe a thousand feet off the island, when a family of bottle-nosed dolphins began to show off like it was their job. Maybe it was. We wondered if the boat company has some sort of agreement with the dolphins, paying them in cans of tuna to show up between 3PM and 3.15 and breach a bit for the tourists. Possibly. It seemed that the dolphins and the boat captains had a mutually agreed upon time to leave the area, so we spun around and made for the Isla Choros, where we pulled up alongside a cliff.

Choros is a nature preserve, so for the benefit of the animals, no human is allowed on the island. Nevermind. The pilot began banging the hull of our boat violently, and a flock of albatross flew from their rocks toward the sea. 

Laughing, he continued driving till we reached an outcrop covered with yawning seals.

We spun around again, entering a cove. Seals lounged on most of the larger rocks, but the center rock had two smaller animals on it, rolling around and playing.

"Look, babies!"

I squinted, ecstatic that they were not. "Those are Sea Otters!"

Now a lot of Chileans not only know the English word for that particular animal, they probably also think gringos have a bizarre and unusual love of the otter. No, not really. Just me. 

But let us be clear. The animal we came to see, even after we were completely surprised and delighted by the sea otters, was the penguin. The Humboldt Penguin made it this far north, at least in the summer, and really, the island belonged to the penguin preserve. The island belonged to the penguins. But where were the penguins?

There they are. 

My mother's favorite animal is the penguin, and it's been a long time ambition for her to see penguins in the wild. I adopted this ambition as soon as I knew I'd be going to Chile, although it looked like we would be spending more time in the desert than on the coast, so I wasn't expecting success. Grinning happily at the penguins, I noticed our guide was talking to Sasha in clipped, Chilean Spanish. 

Sasha didn't catch everything he said, so we had to invent our own translation: 

"Here are the penguinos! The penguinos are very skittish, and will commit suicide or have a heart attack if you get too close! Also, they do not have to pay their taxes. This makes the seals very angry." 

I will try to post some drawings and more pictures from the trip as I can, during the week...