May 16th 2015
A mini Galapagos, of course it’s going to be too good to be true right? Of course. It’s not going to be the Galapagos, nothing like it, but that doesn’t mean it will be that bad, after all while Isla De Plata in Ecuador wasn’t the Galapagos, it was still a whole lot of fun. Besides Isla de Damas, the mini galapagos, comes with a comparatively mini price tag.
To get to Isla de Damas some two hours north of La Serena you have a few options, rent a car and drive it following the signs to Punta de Choros carefully, Take a tour from almost any tourist agency in La Serena (usually about 30 000 to 35 000 CLP (60-70 CAD) or do what I did and catch the bus outside of Las Griegos bakery on the corner of Matta Street and Francisco de Aguirre street which leaves everyday at 9 am. The phone number to call ahead and book with Hector Moraya (the guy who runs the bus) at 051-253206 or8-9703499 but it’s usually fine to just show up a 20 minutes before departure, enjoy some tasty treats from the bakery and board. The bus costs 4500 each way and returns from Punta de Choros at 3 pm each day (though there’s often other ways to make it back.
Instead of spending 35000 on a tour I managed to do it for under 17 000 noteworthy savings for minimal effort.
I wake up early and get to Panaderia Los Griegos by 815, earlier than I need to be there. The wait for the bus is somewhat long but it arrives on time and I climb aboard and buy a ticket without any issues.
The second half of the ride is bumpy but super beautiful, carrying us on narrow dirt roads through the mountainous desert of the Chilean Coast line. I drift on with the jumps caught somewhere between asleep and awake before we finally pull up to the last stop the bus makes, right alongside the docks in Punta de Choros.
I climb out of the bus and am quickly invited to join a departing boat which will take me to Isla de Damas and two other islands as well for 12,000 CLP (24,,000 CLP). I’ve heard you can sometimes negotiate down to ten, but I’m still waking up and can’t be bothered.
We head out onto the dock together, behind a much larger group who have clearly come on a tour, the board a boat first before our boat arrives and a much smaller group of maybe 8 chileans join me in climbing into this smaller boat. As we wait to go some men harvesting the seaweed chat with me about Canada and what life is like there.
Soon though the boat is zooming out over the big cresting waves towards three specs on the horizon. After a few minutes of boring ride there’s a call from our driver who has spotted something up ahead along with two or three other small tourist boats.
As we speed across the rough waters with sudden speed we suddenly realize what were racing towards as one of a pod of bottlenose dolphins breaches the surface, bursting high up into the air before crashing back down into the murky depths.
A wave of excitement rushes over the boat as we approach the pod who swim playfully in the water putting on an amazing show for about 50 pairs of awe filled eyes. They leap up regularly, breach the surface playfully and swim under and around our moving boats. It’s an amazing start to an incredible day and allows for some great moments captured in photos.
Eventually we leave the dolphins behind and speed in closer to the coast of Isla Choros where we quickly find a rocky and barren looking landscape which is somehow teeming with life. In just the first few minutes drifting in the wake we see countless sea lions, tons of Peruvian boobies, and a wonderful highlight a family of playful sea otters on the rocks, who move infuriatingly fast evading my lens.
We putter along the hilly dark stone coastline and are regularly looked at by more sea lions before the first penguins appear. The penguins here are around all year, though at this time of year more of them are hidden nesting high up on the island. Still in the next 30 minutes cruising along the coastline we see maybe 50 of the funny looking little black and white birds which I’m growing more and more familiar with thanks to my visits to Chiloe and Isla Magdalena.
Eventually though we leave the rocky and wild coast line of Isla Choros behind and head over towards Isla de Damas, bidding goodbye to most of the wildlife and quickly saying hello to some more incredible landscapes. Isla de Damas is covered in cactuses and rugged rock formations and yet it is also home to two stunning white sand beaches which seem out of place so far from the Caribbean.
Both sadly and happily Concaf, Chile’s organization in charge of National parks only allows tourists to land on the island for one hour. This is frustrating as there is so much to explore, but good as it helps to minimize the impact on the flora and fauna of the area. In the end it’s probably a good thing.
Either way upon landing I hurry out of the boat and rush along one path heading up to the highest point of the island. I pass a few friends who’ve climbed up onto some rocks for an even better view and mark the place in my mind for the way back down before hurrying up to the highest point of the trail.
Some impressive views and photos later I head down and clamber around some cactuses up onto the huge boulder, marvelling at an incredible view of the wide open pacific Ocean beyond.
Eventually I’m joined by some germans and decide it’s time to keep moving, more or less running down the path and past the first of the two white sound beaches, hurrying along the sandy path marked by small cactuses towards the other end of the island and the bigger of the two beaches. I’m running out of time and sweating despite the cool wind blowing across my face, still I manage to take some photos though before continuing along the loop which will take me back to my boat and the first beach.
The walk takes me along the other shore of the small island but there’s precious little time to appreciate the rolling waves as I hurry back to avoid being stranded. i’m second last back to the boat but after begging I get permission from our guide to peel off my clothes and plunge into the icy cold water off the first beach, much to the delight of everyone else there. The not apt for swimming signs are ignored once again. I only find myself wishing I had time to snorkel.
Alas it’s not to be and I climb back onto the only half full boat still dripping wet and somehow avoid freezing on the half hour ride back to the Chilean coast. We’re back by about 1:00 pm and so I decide rather than wasting time eating at the only restaurant still open at this time of year, I’ll head over to another slightly less white beach.
The walk takes me over some rocks and past a lot of drying seaweed laid out with great care along the shoreline to catch the sun. Apparently the seaweed here is sold for a decent amount of money.
Despite the frigid water temperatures I find myself swimming again before hurrying back to catch the only bus back to La Serena. Happily enough though that’s not to be as I’m offered a ride by two friendly women from Santiago who missed the boat today and plan to come back the next day. The drive back in their new SUV is comfortable and the conversation good, though I am amazed as they regularly hit 170 on the way back to the city.
Once back I head back to the wonderfully comfortable Andes Hostel and plan for the future. Tomorrow I’m off to the Elqui valley, where the Pisco liqueur is made and one of the best places to observe the sky.