Narrow Chile is blessed with over six thousand of Kilometres of pacific coastline. The stretch north of Santiago is where the weather is perfect for swimming, from alternative Valparaiso to the surfing towns of Iquique and Arica up near the Peruvian border. We only went as far La Serena before heading north-east up the Pan-America to San Pedro de Atacama.
Valparaiso is a colourful, alternative city famous for its street art and street artists. It has a completely different feel to anywhere else we’ve been. It’s the kind of place to wander, without any real plan or purpose and delight in what you uncover in the ramshackle collection of brightly painted stairs, steep narrow streets and mural buildings. There are of course organised walking tours of the city and some designed specifically for the street art, where you can discover the story behind the art. At the water’s edge is the harbour and the train station with a the train line obscuring the view in an ugly but kind of shabby “fits with the town’s grungy feel” way.
Even the bars and cafes are an exploratory minefield, and you can easily linger all day sipping great coffee in these eclectic hideaways tucked into the hillside, filled with arts & crafts, with views of the city and the blue Pacific Ocean stretching beyond. It strangely reminds me of my hometown, Newcastle in Australia. A smaller, more alternative city a hour and a half north of a busy modern capital where you can watch the ships pull in from the Pacific and find beautiful beaches to the north and south. Speaking of Australia, we stumbled upon Cafe Melbourne near Plaza Sotomayor. Hands down, the best coffee we’ve had in South America! There are many ways to navigate Valparaiso’s streets. The old trams and hillside elevators were a fun way to sightsee while giving our legs a break from the constant hills.
Viña del Mar
Just 20 minutes North of Valparaiso via local city bus you can reach Viña del Mar. What a contrast! A collection of high-rises, modern buildings and symmetrically placed palm trees, its main streets make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Santa Monica Boulevard in LA. It’s the place to be if you want to spend a day on the beach. It’s also home to several interesting museums including the Artequin Museum, the Museum of Archaeology and History Francisco Fonck which has the stone Moai sculptures from Easter Island and shrunken heads on display.
Dunas de Concón
Continuing another 10-15 minutes north of Viña del Mar is an enormous sand dune popular to sand board. You can hire a sand board at the base of the dunes by the roadside for Ch$200 per hour. Harder than it looks, but such an adrenaline rush! The only not-so fun bit is hiking back up the dunes at the end. It’s also the perfect place to watch the sunset. From the height of the dunes you can see more beautiful beaches stretching north.
A 7 hour bus ride north of Valparaiso is another relaxed beach town, La Serena. This is also a good base to explore the Elqui Valley 1 hour inland or to the penguin reserve 1 hour north. I thought the beaches were not as pretty or clean as in Viña del Mar/Concón. However there’s an interesting lighthouse and colonial old town. To reach La Serena from Valparaiso we went with Turbus – book online for discounts. It leaves from the Valparaiso bus station.
Isla Damas & The Humboldt Penguin Reserve
The tiny, coastal desert town of Punta de Choros is where the boats wait to collect tourists visiting these two islands. Punta de Choros is about 1 – 1.5 hours’ drive from La Serena. There are few places to stay here and they are expensive unless you camp. Most people choose to either take a local bus from La Serena or book a tour. We opted for a tour with ecoturismo, who claim to have reliable boats with new, efficient and clean engines that impact the environment as little as possible. The Chilean government also has limits on the number of people allowed to the islands on any one day. Our guide Jorge was very knowledgable and translated everything into excellent English even though the rest of people on our tour spoke Spanish. I enjoyed the tour in both languages.
Isla Damas is the only island you are allowed to set foot on. At the other island the boat only brought us up to the rocks at the shore. We were up close and personal with sea lions and a variety of birds. All the while a pod of social dolphins played alongside our boat. The penguins were the most difficult to spot, as it’s nesting season most of them are at the top of the island, out of sight. We were able to spot a few waddling down to the water to replenish the family food supplies. We also saw two otters, they are very shy so it’s unusual to see them.
The boat docked in at Isla Damas and we walked the path around the island which takes about 30 minutes. There were few animals to observe here apart from many nesting seagulls. The rocky landscape and white sandy beaches are very beautiful especially when the sun finally came out, lighting up the sea a brilliant aqua blue.
On the way back we stopped at a campsite near Punta de Choros for lunch. The prawn and cheese empanada and freshly grilled fish was amazing, plus dessert and drinks (beer, wine, soft drinks, tea and coffee) – so much food we couldn’t eat dinner. While we could’ve done things a little cheaper ourselves, the tour was great value once we added everything up. I definitely recommend it.