There are tons of tour agencies in La serena and Coquimbo, and they will do their best to sell you experiences such as wine, beer and/or pisco tasting at the Elqui Valley, astronomical tours including an ‘astro-photo souvenir’, National Parks and Reserves to wander around, and horseback riding tours to small towns, among many others.
Choosing the right agency will not be easy, but that’s going to be on you only. The main idea behind this blog entry is to show you all the things you can do here and provide some local tips for those who travel on a budget.
1. Visit Isla Damas (Damas Island) and the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve.
The Humboldt Penguin National Reserve is a Nature Sanctuary made up of three islands where bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, whales, and Humboldt penguins, among other sea mammals, live.
The Reserve was created to protect Humboldt penguins since they are now a vulnerable specie. Overfishing and the Guano exploitation shrank their population; today, climate change and tourism are decreasing their numbers too.
Visiting Isla Damas will take a full day, whether you do it through an agency or on taking public transport (which is way cheaper!). You’ll first get to Punta de Choros Inlet (a wee inlet with a wee craft fair and some restaurants), from where you’ll take a boat trip to watch the wildlife from afar and if possible, disembark at Isla Damas. I strongly recommend not to disembark if you have the chance, since tourists roaming the island are seriously affecting the life of the protected species.
Gettig there by public transport: Public transport charges you 4500 CLP per seat from La Serena (right outside Los Griegos Bakery, on the corner of Francisco de Aguirre Avenue and Matta Street). Once you get to Punta de Choros inlet, go directly to book your seat on a boat since the queue is long, and it may take an hour or more.
Tourist agencies do that for you, however, they are much more expensive, charging no less than 44 CLP per person, (a bit less for kids).
To know how to do get to Punta de Choros by public transport, click here!
2. Enjoy Fray Jorge National Park.
This is for sure the tour I liked the most when in La Serena. Fray Jorge is a unique rainforest in the middle of the desert. When it is not foggy, it is possible to see the mountain stream and the sea.
The trek is easy to walk and well maintained. My kid had no issues doing it; however, she’s very athletic.
I went with Turismo Luna Mágica tour Agency. Since I was paying for my daughter and myself, they gave us a discount. Amazingly, their prices ended up being way cheaper than all the other agencies I talked to.
3. Learn about petroglyphs and pictographies at El Encanto Valley.
After the trek in Fray Jorge, Turismo Luna Mágica took us to the Enchanted Valley. I liked it, though half of the tourists in our group didn’t. I guess that, if you have already been to the north of Chile and seen the great petroglyphs there, this is not going to be much of an attraction to you. However, if you like prehispanic history, which is my case, you’ll totally loved it.
The Enchanted Valley is an archeological site where you’ll find unique petroglyphs, pictographs and mortars, which in Spanish are called piedras tácitas.
Spoilr alert: there’s even a petogryph with the shape of an astronomer!!
4. Take an astronomic tour.
There are plenty of observatories outside La Serena, in the Elqui Valley, since the region is said to have some of the clearest skies in the world. There are plenty of Agencies that can take you to an observatory, being the most famous ones Mamalluca Observatory and Tololo Observatory.
Mamalluca is a touristic observatory. Research is not done there, that’s why you get the chance to gaze the stars using a telescope. Mamalluca tours are around 25 CLP each person if booked with a tour company. If you are staying in Vicuña, book the ticket directly with the observatory office by the main square in town (7000 CLP per adult if you have a vehicle).
Check the moon calendar before you book your ticket. Nights without moon are better to see the stars.
Tololo, on the other hand, is a real observatory, however, you cannot visit it during the night, only on Saturday afternoons and you may have to book your visit with a month in advance.
5. Elqui Valley.
Ideally, spend at least 1 day in each small town to get to know the whole Valley. If your only chance to be there is by taking a one-day tour, you’ll have to choose carefully, since some of them show you a bit of everything, and some others focus on the wine or the pisco production of the area.
My family and I spent 5 days at the Elqui Valley, and I felt it wasn’t enough, so I’m already planning a road trip back to the small towns we didn’t have the chance to see.
To check the full details of my road trip through the Elqui Valley, click here.
6. Extra info:
If you are not travelling by car, or if you don’t want to use public transport to get to some of these places, there is a big chance that your hostel or hostal has discounted prices with a specific tour company.
No matter if your tour company is providing lunch or some snack, bring something to eat and a tea/water flask. Snacks can be very expensive at some small towns, since locals see tourists as their only opportunity to make money.
Also, use sunblock even if the day is cloudy. I didn’t do it once and ironically, I got a sunburned on a cloudy day.