My first chance to see penguins in the wild came when I was staying in La Serena, a popular beach town north of Santiago. Aside from being a place to catch a tan and swim in the chilly Pacific, La Serena is a great place to a take day trip to Parque Nacional Humboldt, a marine reserve and home to Humboldt penguins. Various eco-tourism companies in La Serena offer day trips to Parque Nacional Humboldt. To find these companies, I only needed to spot the promotional placards hung outside of their offices. The placards were adorned with pictures of pods of dolphins, herds of seas lions, and colonies of penguins. I did a little comparison shopping among excursion companies, and then booked a trip for myself and my friend Andrea.
Our trip to the reserve began at 7 a.m., when Andrea and I were shuttled out of La Serena in a white Volkswagen passenger van with around fifteen other participants. The group was mainly a mix of Chilean nationals and vacationing Peruvians. However, I wasn’t the only gringo, as there were two young women from Switzerland on the trip.
Our guide and driver was Jorge, a middle-aged Chileno. On the way to the marine reserve, Jorge told us that he used to be a school teacher, but quit the profession to become a full-time eco-tourism guide. Eco-tourism is an ever expanding industry in Chile, and it’s not surprising why. Stretching from the Atacama Desert in the north to Patagonia in the south, Chile is blessed with a diverse assortment of captivating landscapes and wildlife.
To reach Parque Nacional Humboldt, we drove north a couple of hours to the tiny fishing village of Punta Choros. The trip to Punta Choros took us past lovely vistas of the Pacific and through stretches of desert dominated by cactus and scrubby desert plants. While motoring down a dirt road, we saw a herd of wild Guanaco, a four-legged ungulate in the camel family. Jorge stopped the van to try to give us a chance to photograph these skittish animals. With big, dark eyes and long, curving eyelashes that would make Lady Gaga feint with envy, Guanacos are enchantingly gorgeous animals. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any decent pictures of the Guanacos with my point and shoot camera.
Upon reaching Punta Choros, Jorge told us that we’d be getting on a boat to tour the marine reserve. He told us that the reserve protects a swath of the Pacific as well as three small islands named Damas, Choros, and Chanaral. The islands were where we’d find the penguin colonies. The weather at Punto Choros was gray and chilly. Jorge was concerned that the seas might be too rough to allow safe passage. As Jorge spoke to the boat operator, there was collective worry in the group that our trip would be cancelled. But in the end, we were fitted with life jackets and boarded on a small, open boat with an outboard motor.
Andrea and I bundled up to protect ourselves from the chilly wind sweeping across the ocean. We could see the three, small islands of the reserve waiting across a channel. As we slowly made our way toward the islands, Jorge told us that the waters around the reserve are rich in marine life, serving as a nursery for dolphins, whales, sea lions, and nutria. Soon after he said this, our boat driver spotted a pod of dolphins. About a minute later, our boat was surrounded by dolphins. Groups of four to six dolphins surfaced all around us, their small dorsal fins giving them the appearance of miniature sharks. Mothers and calves came up for air alongside the boat, their dark backs shiny with seawater, their blowholes opening and audibly emitting a wet exhalation. “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” erupted from our mouths. Through the vivid clarity of the pristine ocean water, I could see the dolphins’ dark eyes staring back at me. In this intimate proximity to another living being, and in these moments of mutual recognition, I felt all of the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and a heaviness sat in my throat. Overcome with emotion, I felt that this trip was already a winner, penguins or not.
We slowly left our dolphin friends and were soon close to one of the islands. The margin of the island was nothing more than bare rock, any vegetation burned off by the guano shat by seabirds or washed away by pounding surf. Low, sparse vegetation covered the inland portions of the island. The boat pulled close to a group of sea lions hauled out onto a rock ledge. The limited space on the rock ledge made the sea lions necessarily fussy about personal space. Both males and females barked, grunted, and nudged each other, trying to protect their patch of rock to rest on. Our boat bobbed in the swells as we observed the sea lions in amusement. I found myself thinking that sea lions have an air about, a certain social uppitiness. I saw this in the way they sat with their heads raised, a posture which conveyed a better-than-thou attitude. On occasion the sea lions eyed us in a condescending, dismissive way, letting us know that we weren’t part of their social clique, and I assumed they were quite happy about that.
Around a bend from the sea lions, we spotted our first penguins. A group of Humboldt penguins stood on some rocks at the water’s edge. Our boat captain maneuvered us as close as he could to the penguins, which was a dicey proposition, considering the constant waves and the underwater rocks. It was close enough to snap some photos and take in the awkwardness of penguins on land, one of the characteristics that make them so lovable. Jorge told us that the penguins nested higher up on the island, and he pointed out a dirt trail that extended from a hilltop down to the water’s edge. He explained that by nesting higher up, there was less of a chance that their eggs and young would suffer predation by nutria, a type of sea otter. Each day the penguins had to make their way down from the hilltop to feed in the ocean. We were treated to a number of penguins comically waddling down their steep, dirt trail to access the water.
Our little boat pressed on, taking us past various groups of other colonial nesting seabirds. We saw hundreds of cormorants standing in tight groups on the rocks, raucous in their vocalizations, prolific in their production of guano. Pelicans stood alone on the rocks, confident and regal. Peruvian boobies sat huddled on precarious ledges, tending to their nests.
After touring the seabird colonies, we were taken to a small, natural harbor on Isla Damas, and were allowed to get off the boat and walk around a bit. Isla Damas had a few sandy paths which cut through succulent, salt tolerant vegetation. We broke off into our own little groups. Andrea and I chose a beachfront area to rest on the sand for a while. Eventually we got back on the boat and returned to the mainland.
Included in the trip was a seafood meal at a small restaurant in Punta Choros. Our group was talkative at lunch, recounting what we’d seen and sharing bits about our lives. It was a good day, no doubt. Little did I know that before leaving South America I’d see three more species of Penguins.