We are getting closer now to the Atacaman desert, we can practically smell the sand already in anticipation (or is that only sand residue in Ramone’s not exactly airtight ventilation system?)
La Serena was the next big circle on the map. We didn’t really know what to expect, other than it being a gateway to the Elqui Valley, and a bunch of small observatories we’ve never heard of (except reading about them in the Lonely Planet book, which every tourist travelling here is using). We ended up speeding through the city, except for stopping at the ginormous concrete cross dedicated to the late pope John Paul II. I guess every country in South America has to have one.
The next day we went to the small fishing village of Punta Choros to go on a boat tour to the national reserve Pinguino de Humboldt. Medio march is the low season, but we were still surprised as to how few tourists there were. Anyways, in our bareley sufficiente spanish, we managed to understand that there was 1) a 7 person minimum, and 2) a bus full of tourists was on the way.
Three hours later we realize that some of the finer nuances in the communication apparently had been lost; we were all just doing the “palms up, lifting of the shoulders”-gesture. Finally, when the boat-guy realized we weren’t going to cough up the full minimum price (70,000 pesos), they relented and, with the help of google translate voice-recognition (which is like magic!), sent us to the other part of town, literally, 500 meters, where all the tourists apparently had been hiding. We were ushered onto a small, open boat with 10 other people and off we were.
The goal was two of three islands that form the reserve, Isla Damas and Isla Choros. The reserve is named for a tiny type of penguin found only here (as far as I know), the Humboldt penguin. But in addition the islands are important habitats for birds, more birds than you could count; pelicans, cormorants, boobies (which we didn’t see), and of course seagulls. It’s kind of cool to see exotic big birds like flamingos and pelicans, but in general they are disgusting creatures who literally live in their on shit; shit that is so extreme it needs it’s own name (guano). When the guide steered the boat close to the cliffs, covered centimeters thick with guano, I almost got an acute asthma attack; the ammonia stench was so incredibly strong. Yuck!
Luckily, we didn’t bird watch for too much of the trip; next up was sea lions, a few penguins staring dumbly back at us, a few sleek sea otters, and the main attraction; dolphins! The guide steered us a bit away from the islands, into the stronger current. He turned off the engine, tapped the side of the boat a few times, and suddenly we were surrounded by dolphins! Incredibly elegant and powerful, and curious (yes, I know, these guys has to shit as well (or do they?). After a few minutes of them chasing and overtaking our small boat, even the sea lions joined in in the game. Totally worth waiting 3 hours for!
Our journey continued northwards. Several nights of camping along the coast, with serene, tinkle-inducing sounds of waves crashing. This thing with rough camping in a camper van was totally as good as hoped for!