Leaving the pretty beach town of La Serena, our bus heads into the beginnings of the empty, sparse, but hauntingly beautiful semi-arid landscape that will continue for hundreds of miles finally forming the renowned Atacama Desert, or “the driest place on earth”.
Today, though, we are stopping short of this internationally renowned destination for a lesser-known but intriguing corner of the north of Chile. Very quickly most signs of civilization slip past us, giving way to long stretches of desert road in between the occasional, lonely, dusty village. At the end of the road, we arrive at Punta de Choros, or “mussel point” — named for the abundance of the crustaceans found in the area’s seas by early settlers — which serves as a jumping off point for the surrounding beaches, islands and nature reserves.
The nearby Damas, Chañaral and Choros islands and surrounding waters form the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve which was established in 1990 to protect the large colonies of the South American birds that breed along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts. Penguins, though, are not the only wildlife living in these emerald waters, there are also sea lions, otters, many species of birds and, if you are lucky, dolphins and whales.
While landing is forbidden on several of the islands to protect wildlife, boat tours do include a stop on the uninhabited Isla Damas where visitors can enjoy the white sand beaches before continuing the tour.
Another way to explore the reserve’s diverse sea life is by scuba diving. A well-established region for diving, the Punta de Choros coast and surrounding areas offer the opportunity to explore many areas and see a range of fish, invertebrates and algaes. Several tour operators run everything from beginners classes to “adventure diving” from the village. Other activities offered by local tour operators include kayaking and trekking.
Back on land, the abundance of fresh seafood means a range of delicious dining options while the town’s location by the sea means that visitors can stay in hotels, or camp, with unparalleled views of the sea. Located less than 100 miles from La Serena, which has an airport, Punta de Choros is easy to get to despite the area’s isolated ambiance.
By Sam Edwards