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Chile’s Humboldt Penguin National Park On A Grey Day In May

Travel story of a tour to the Humboldt Penguin National Park in Chile

Travel story of a tour to the Humboldt Penguin National Park in Chile

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Penguins wobble when they walk. Sometimes they fall right over as they totter over rocks on the shore, tiny wings stuck out for balance, not really helping them keep their balance at all.

We watch in disbelief as the four tiny penguins began the long ascent up a sheer cliff face. Somewhere in the flat plateau high overhead, far from the preying eyes and claws of ‘gatitas del mar’ (cats of the sea), otherwise known as sea otters, are penguin nests with young chicks waiting eagerly for dinner.

After a few minutes I notice that they have made a surprising amount of progress up the cliff, picking their way up a path we can’t see from the boat.

They stop frequently. I can see their heads look around and back and forth at each other, as if talking.

“You first.” “No, really, you first.” “No, I insist.” “No, really, you go.” “But I don’t want to go first.”

I see one lose his or her balance, wings circling wildly, teetering on one foot, a long drop of probably 50 feet looming. But the fall turns into a short tumble, and a shelf of rock I can’t see stops what could have been a disasterous fall.

More head bobbing back and forth “Are you OK?” ”Ya ya. No big deal. I’m fine.” “Maybe you should lay off the fatty fish for awhile.” “Who asked you? Just keep going, keep going. I’m coming, I’m coming.”

Moments later they resume their climb. I want to stay longer, but the tour boat has drifted far past the shore on the swift current. Soon the tiny specks of penguin bodies are no longer visible. Too bad. Seeing penguins was my main motivation for taking this tour to The Humbold Penguin National Reserve, 120 km outside of La Serena, Chile.


More Creatures Than Penguins at the Penguin Park

Besides penguins, my friend Maria Horshig and I (and the rest of the people on the tour) ended up seeing two pairs of sea otters swim gracefully by, a lot of sea lions noisily lolling about noisily on shore, a thousand birds, and a million krill jumping like hot popped popcorn from the surface of the sea into the air.

Sea lions are very entertaining to watch. They are slap stick comedians, making faces,funny barks and endless complaints. One liked to look at us from upside-down, then right-side up, then upside-down again.

They don’t seem to watch where they’re going, and clamber all over each other. Some give up and collapse one on top of another, and then seem to fall asleep instantly.

They have a talent for making it look like they are lying on comfortable sofas and not sharp rocks. Some lie on their backs, flippers wide open, bellies exposed, sleeping as if passed -out drunk.

A few are pregnant. Our guide points out one that he thinks will give birth before the end of the week.


Jumpin’ Jack Flash Krill

All of a sudden, a million krill appear, jumping like hot popped popcorn from the surface of the sea. The guide caught some by swishing his hand through the air as if swatting mosquitos. They are so small and almost transparent that you can hardly see them on his hand.

When you peer into the surface of the dark wavess, it’s easy to see streaming ribbons of red as countless krill ride the currents just below the surface. Krill are in fact bioluminescent, and have organs that emit light.

Island of the Damned, I mean Damas

The next stop was Damas Island, the only place you can dock and walk around an island in this national park. We all welcome the chance to strech out legs; the island proves to be a good way to warm up more than anything else. There is no wildlife to be seen and the cold cloudy weather dulls the views out to sea.

Some of the cacti are covered in what looked like spider webs, and some look like they are in bloom, with tiny red flowers on them. But it turns out both the webs and flowers are forms of parasitic life that are killing off the cactus here.

Chewy Soup

Back on shore, we tuck into lunch in a cheery restaurant in a drab coastal village. I dig into a piping hot huge bowl of seafood soup chock full of shellfish I have never tried before. Some of the shellfish come from striped shells, others from prickly spiny round shells. A fisherman showed us some of these earlier in the day. I only recognized the mussels, scallops and shrimp. The rest was mystery food. A lot of it was very chewy. My mouth muscles got a good workout.

Soon it was time to head back to La Serena. Just past the coastline is a windy, desert landscape, with wide-open flats filled with enormous and ancient cacti, many more than twice my height.

Miles of arid seaside cover the sides of the slightly rolling hills leading to the sea a few km outside La Serena. Every mile is staked with strings and with survey flags at regular intervals. This whole area is being sold for holiday resort homes. In a few years it will be covered in houses. Hard to see the appeal. There is nothing here to see but open sea.

It makes me sad, somehow, to think of the coast blanketed with houses, even though there is nothing there now except a few small cacti, sand, rocks and a rocky shoreline; nothing will be cut down, and no animals displaced or made extinct by this. I think the gloomy weather is getting to me.

Sunnier weather and happier moods lay ahead. Another day, another tour. This time it’s a trip to the Elqui Valley, a place famous for almost constant sunshine, tranquil vineyards and a pleasant resort town (Pisco Elqui).

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