Travelling in Chile by Camper
Chilean “Norte Chico” by Camper
September, October and November are the spring months in Central Valley and Northern Chile. Wild flowers and cactus are everywhere. Birds build their nests and the nutrient-rich Humboldt current attracts whales to the coast. With a bit of luck it has rained in the desert during the winter and the land that is generally dry has transformed into a colorful carpet. The flowery desert phenomenon can be seen between Copiapó and La Serena every couple of years. The spring of 2017 the desert blossomed as a long time ago it did not happen. Another reason to travel to the so-called Norte Chico and to do so, we rent a camper in Contactchile.
To make our short excursion, we rent a camper at the end of October. The trip can of course be made in a normal car and stay in different places. After receiving our Camper in Colina, near Santiago, we went quickly to buy from a local supermarket and then we went north. First on the road that connects the whole country, Route 5, through the steppe of thickets to the fertile valley of Aconcagua. Small stalls advertise their products on the roadside with signs: olives, prickly pears and tangerines. After 1.5 hours of travel we reached the Pacific Ocean and arrived at the holiday point: Los Molles (215 km from Santiago). The beach is suitable for swimming, simple restaurants, diving schools, simple accommodations and small summer cottages. On the beach we bought some delicious fresh empanadas. 200 meters away, the street ends in one of my favorite places facing the Pacific Ocean. On one side, the view extends across the wide bay; and on the other, the waves break dramatically against the small black rock islets, where cormorants, seagulls and pelicans feel impassive to rest. The rocks are covered with algae which is generally cut and put to dry under the sun to be mainly exported to Japan and China.
A rocky massif looks as if it were a ship stranded in the ocean and the blue and greenish waves hit it and go through a channel with great force, causing a wild roar. Again and again the same, but always new phenomenon occurs when the wave number 100 hits every 10 to 15 minutes with much greater intensity. We sit at a safe distance and enjoy this natural spectacle.
Then, we visit the Puquén Park: a private natural park that protects a large area of coastline from the access of real estate companies. Here there is a unique and prosperous flora and fauna composed of several species of cactus, wild orchids, shrubs and wild flowers. Under the cliffs the sea lions and occasionally penguins frolic in the water. A walking trail in about 30 min. leads us to the maximum attraction passing through different viewpoints. We head towards the Puquén, a kind of geyser that forms with the breaking waves. From a crack about 60 meters above sea level, it shoots every few minutes with a great roar, which is pressed by the waves through the channels in the rock and the water comes out with force in the form of a jet towards the surface, which reminds us of a whale’s orifice, and probably from there comes the name Puquén, from the early Molle culture. The entrance to the park is located at the end of El Lúcumo street and can hardly be perceived. On weekends and during the summer a small entrance fee is paid.
Today it’s about flattening kilometers. After Los Vilos, we continue along Route 5 to the north through uninhabited places and a semi-desert landscapes. From time to time, wind energy mills remind us of human beings. Actually we wanted to deviate towards the Fray Jorge National Park, but right at the entrance there was a sign that said the park is closed. What a shame! On previous occasions we could admire the vegetation and the humid forest, which emerges as a kind of biological island that is endemic to 1000 km to the south, and gets water from the coastal fog that hangs from the steep mountain range.
Then we continue towards Guanaqueros, a picturesque fishing village protected by a peninsula that forms a peaceful bay without wind. While we walk along the waterfront, we can watch fishermen and merchants working. Wherever the fish is filleted, the giant sea lions that move slowly in the water just need to open their mouths and the remains of fish are thrown into the sea as in the land of milk and honey. Of course, there are many places right in the harbor, where fresh seafood from the sea goes straight to the plate. And here we are very lucky, because it was the city’s birthday and there is a presentation of music, bands and cueca for the joy of the visitors and the surprise of the pelicans and seagulls. Then we continued north. Our goal is to find as much as possible nature and solitude, so we stopped only to load the tank of benzine in the double city Coquimbo-La Serena. Route 5 at the northern exit of La Serena has been transformed into a modern highway and you can advance smoothly. Finally we headed towards the coast and crossed the wide valley of candelabra cactus towards Punta de Choros. The signs warn to pay attention to the Guanacos. Today, however, no one crossed our path.
Punta de Choros, originally a small and dusty fishing village, is the gateway to a special jewel of the North: the Humboldt Penguin Natural Reserve that protects several islands near the coast, home to a largely intact flora and fauna . About 80% of all Humboldt penguins live on the island of Chañaral; this funny bird and other 70 large plumiferous species are native only in Chile. Since the establishment of the reserve in 1990, many fishermen have adapted their boats for visitors, since tourism has long become the main source of income for the area. In Punta de Choros there are several complexes of bungalows (cabins), domes, lodges and camping sites. We recommend the site Memoruz (www.memoruz.cl), which is located on a small and protected beach for seafood with a direct view of Damas Island.
The boats in Punta de Choros leave every so often, as soon as a group of people gather. The round lasts almost 3 hours and costs 10,000 pesos (13 EUR). First sail along the coast of Isla Choros, where throughout the year you can see penguins, gannets, cormorants and sea lions up close. On the way, some groups of dolphins swim beside the boat: it is the only known colony of these “bottlenose dolphins” in Chile. Finally we arrive at Isla Damas to make a walk through cactus meadows and climb up to the lighthouse, from where the view over the white beach, the turquoise waters of the sea and the Andes mountain range is sufficient.
We know this tour in Punta de Choros from previous visits, so this time we continue another 26 km to Chañaral de Aceituno. Also this small town has awakened thanks to tourism and now there are small B & Bs like the Nautical Refuge, a couple of simple cabins and some food places. We are looking for a parking lot on the stone beach covered with wild roses.
Today we want to see whales! In the port there is a boat ready to sail and almost no wind. It is equipped with life vests and enters the strait between the mainland and the Chañaral Island. The looks turn around anxiously and it seems that there are only gray waves. But then the first call: “Back there!” In fact, we see a jet at a great distance. The guide points to the place at full speed. Our guide Victor knows immediately: Fin whales, which after the Blue Whale are the largest mammals of the sea and measure about 27 meters long. The footprint is lost. The driver of the boat finally stops the engine and we wait. Small groups of seabirds on the surface show us the spots of Krill stains. There can be the whales. This small crustacean is their favorite food and a whale eats several tons a day … and suddenly we see the first long gray loins sticking out of the water. The fin whale swings and is not alone. Soon we are surrounded by half a dozen of these huge animals, some only 50 meters away from the boat. Every now and then they throw a jet. Other times there is a majestic fin that gives their name and once, one of the whales turns so that we can admire its huge steep tail. Victor says that the whales, which were hunted without mercy until the mid-twentieth century off the Chilean coast, are gradually returning. Not only fin whales, but also humpback whales and even blue whales come in mid-January to the nature reserve due to the large supply of krill that exists here. It’s hard to free ourselves from such a wonderful show and finally we continue sailing towards Isla Chañaral. There the Humboldt penguins waiting for us, who have dug their caves between the rocks to make their nests and go down in small groups to fish. On the islets, sea lions frolic in the sun. In this place two species of them are seen: the South American sea lion, also called common sea lion and the southern fine sea lion, which is more scarce and recognizable by its finely cut head and different ears. Among the rocks on the shore, another timid marine mammal sniffs: the Chungungo (sea otter) that is so fast that it can not be captured by the camera. Large number of seabirds nest in the cliffs. One can feel relatively safe, the clear island is closed to visitors, only park rangers and researchers can step on it.
On the way back we are lucky again: a group of pilot whales and a curious group of round-headed dolphins accompany the boat. The nice animals with the light gray body of 6 meters long jump around us and the dorsal fins look out of the water during the chase right next to us and in front of us. What a great tour!
Chañaral de Aceituno is almost privileged information. It offers the easiest and most economical possibility of observing whales in all Chile. Although they are present on the coasts of the island of Chiloé, in the Gulf of Corcovado or in the channels of Patagonia, it is much more difficult to locate them, and the few regular trips are much more expensive than here (In Chañaral it is only about 12,000 pesos / about 16 euros per person).
Once on land we are strengthened in a small restaurant located directly in the port. Then we return to the road, since we want to gain altitude to visit the altiplanic plains tomorrow morning. Through a well-paved road with a saline mixture we head again towards Route 5 and continue to Copiapó, Capital of the Atacama Region. We load fuel, since now 530 km await us in a lonely desert in height. (Those who do not travel in Camper, can request a tour for the day to Copiapó, assuming that it is an all-terrain vehicle with sufficient autonomy).
We leave Copiapó to go northeast and after 16 km we take Route 31 towards Paso San Francisco. The Bischofita layer allows a rapid advance in the San Andres Valley, only occasionally the track is full of potholes: here there was a flood in 2015 due to heavy rains and the landslide of the Andes Mountain Range fell to the valley and destroyed streets, towns and the center of Copiapó. At a height of more than 2000 m, a stream meanders through a green plain, where we spend the night. The sunset dyes the red cliffs and the night shows us the stars with exceptional clarity.
The rising sun bathes the high valley under a cool light. After taking pictures and breakfast, we went through really dizzy heights. Soon 4000 meters are reached and a sign tells us the height as well as our short breath and we noticed it by taking a few steps to take pictures. At the edge of the road the white tips of the Penitents stand out and announce icy winds. From the pass of Codoceo at 4300 m altitude, the view widens over the Altiplano and behind it are the peaks of the 6000m.
Now we go to the Salar de Maricunga, a giant salt surface. The solitary border guard, who handles the traffic to Argentina, kindly opens the barrier and beckons us when we tell him we will stay in Chile; he does not even want to see our passports …
The asphalt is first class and we continue through the lonely desert in height; In total we have met with four other vehicles during the day on our tour by the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park. A few funny vicuñas distract us from the endless space; They have adapted perfectly to the sterile height. The road reaches an impressive 4600 meters and then on the right you can see the massif of the Ojos de Salado in a diffuse image. With its 6893 m it is the highest mountain in Chile and at the same time the highest volcano in the world. Caution is advised when getting out of the car: The extreme wind almost tears off the car door!
After a curve, comes the visual sensation: a blue-green surface with crusts of white salt around and crowns of white foam on the water. Behind it several volcanic giants of reddish brown: it is the Green Lagoon, our destination of the day. On the shore, the wind whistles so loudly that we can not force ourselves to climb into the thermal pool of water that feels warm when touched by hand. A little further there is also a small shelter, but it does not seem very attractive.
We returned and at the Salar de Maricunga, we took a very rugged alternative route to Copiapó. It passes through the Laguna Santa Rosa, a salty water lagoon. From a point, we can almost see the flamingos from above in the deep blue waters. The path continues for a step, whose view is fantastic and then goes through the picturesque Quebrada de Paipote, down the 4000 m. We are happy to take care of the fuel downhill, but the indicator looks threatening in the last third … Would it have been better to bring a drum?
In the end, we arrived to Copiapo. After so much loneliness, it is difficult to endure the traffic jam at the time people leave their work. We filled the supplies of gasoline and beer and fled to the south. At km 713 (92 km from Copiapó) we turn west from the road. From afar, the plain shines violet and now we enter into it: It is the desert in bloom! The afternoon sun bathes the predominantly purple flowers, but they are also yellow and white and cover the sterile floor, in a surreal light. The highest point of the phenomenon has already happened about 4 to 5 weeks ago and many flowers are already withered, but the purple Pata de Guanaco shines with all its splendor.
We parked the camper with caution so that we do not crush the flowers and stretch the camping chairs and we enjoyed the night in the solitary desert among the silhouettes of the candelabra cactus. A magnificent starry sky extends over us.
Even those who travel out of season and do not see the flowery desert can follow the same route described here, but go directly to the small and beautiful Llanos de Challe National Park, passing by the Canto del Agua. The park protects the vegetation of the rugged Cordillera de la Costa with more than 200 species of different plants, including numerous endemic cacti, but the biggest attraction is undoubtedly the guanacos. The wild camelids, scarce in the north and center of Chile, do not reach altitudes as high as their sweetest relatives, the Vicuñas, but they can be found between sea level and approximately 3500 m. Here in the park they have found a refuge. We don’t have to wait long to see the first groups appear not far from the road. While most are grazing, one of the animals watches and makes warning calls when danger threatens.
The road crosses the park and reaches the coastal road between Caldera and Huasco. Shortly after we arrive at Playa Blanca, a dazzling white dream beach, which also belongs to the National Park. There is a small information center and an idyllic campsite. Although, as the poster says, it is closed due to lack of water, but still some people camp here. The beach invites you to take a bath, but we do not last long in the frozen waters of the Pacific.
In the port city of Huasco, we walk along the jetty and eat fresh fish before returning. Through the olive groves, where the famous Olives of Huasco thrive, we return to Route 5. At night we spend the night at Guanaqueros beach.
Today, we are 600 km from Santiago. On the way back, there is time for an Empanada break in Los Molles, where we expect the “100 waves” and bid farewell to the Pacific. A wonderful journey comes to an end.