CHILE

PAN DE AZUCAR, CHILE: WHERE DESERT MEETS THE OCEAN

30 April 2020

Pan de Azucar in Chile is a stunning coastal desert sandwiched between the Pan-American Highway and the Pacific Ocean - and home to 2000 Humboldt penguins #wildcamping #chiletravel #chile #campervan #camperlife #ioverland #overlander #boondocking #traveldestinations #exploremore #travelinspiration #budgettravel #southamerica #southamericatravel

30 April 2020

Like plenty of other places in Chile, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is perfect for travellers in search of self-isolation in paradise.

Translated as “Sugar Loaf National Park”, it’s a world of volcanic rock, desert landscapes and white sandy beaches. It’s also home to a large colony of endangered Humboldt penguins. And it features the regular appearance of a coastal mist nicknamed Camanchaca which sweeps in from the Pacific Ocean.

It doesn’t appear on most itineraries of northern Chile. More the reason why we made a bee-line for it. And we reckon you should do so, too.

Caleta Pan de Azucar

"Wild Love" Camping Spot

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Isla Pan de Azucar

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Getting to Pan de Azucar, Chile

The whole area is best explored with your own wheels during a road trip of northern Chile. Indeed, it provides a welcome contrast to the otherwise monotonous landscape between the Hurtado and Elqui Valleys and San Pedro de Atacama.

Approaching from the south on the Pan-American Highway (Ruta 5), the C-120 forks to the left at Chañaral and hugs the coast for 30 kilometres before arriving at Caleta Pan de Azucar.

From the north, there are two entrance roads – the C-112 (at the Ruta 5 Km 1014 marker) and the C-110 (Km 968).

If you’re not driving, you’ll need to get to Chañaral first, then pick up a taxi. Or you could just hitchhike.

A desert road with sea and hills in the background

View from the approach road to Pan de Azucar from Chañaral

Wild camping just outside the park

There are some campsites within the park. Specifically at Playa Piqueros, Playa El Soldado, and Caleta Pan de Azucar.

But instead, we decided to wild camp just outside the park (there’s no wild camping allowed once you’re inside). And we thoroughly recommend you do, too.

First of all, make sure you’ve downloaded the free iOverlander app. Then search for the “Wild Love” camping spot.

To get there, we drove from Chañaral and took a turn off to our left from the C-120 just before the CONAF checkpoint at Km 15 (GPS coordinates -26.220343, -70.651849).

The dirt track then winds its way through a moon-like volcanic landscape until it descends towards a large expanse of white sand. You don’t necessarily need a 4×4 vehicle but you’ll need to take it very slowly if you don’t.

Eventually, you’ll arrive at a flat piece of ground which previous campers have converted, through the careful placement of small rocks and shells, into a hippyish paean to Mother Earth.

Rocky ground with the sea and hills in the background

Plenty of available pitches for the night

A jeep with rooftop tent parked overlooking a beach

We finally settled on “Wild Love” overlooking the beach

And full credit to them. It’s a gorgeous spot to spend a couple of days. With access to a fabulously deserted beach just below, you really don’t need to continue into the park until you’ve taken full advantage of the wild surroundings here.

Which means spending a few hours on the beach and climbing the rocky outcrops for further elevated views. And finishing the day off with a campfire BBQ while you watch the setting sun blaze a trail of deep orange across the sky.

Of course, this being northern Chile, the night sky is a sight to behold, too. With a dazzling Milky Way as its centrepiece.

Rooftop tent opened out over jeep
A small bundle of rocks with the words "Wild Love" inscribed on them
Side view of a car and rooftop tent in the foreground and a sunset in the background

All in all, one of our favourite wild camping spots.  And the best beach we found in all of South America. Don’t miss it.

View on Google Earth.

View of sunset from "Wild Love"

View of the beach below “Wild Love” camping spot

Rocks in foreground, beach and sea in middle, mountains in background

View of the beach below “Wild Love” camping spot

Things to do inside the National Park

Once inside the park, the C-120 continues past another excellent beach at Playa Blanca before arriving at Caleta de Pan de Azucar.

Originally just a remote fishing village, it’s now geared up to tourism and is where most people base themselves. In addition to the campsites, there’s also a lodge with cabaña accommodation. And the village has a few low-key eateries offering freshly-caught fish dishes.

There are a number of trails to explore. Notably, Sendero El Mirador, which climbs up to a watchtower for breathtaking views of the park and its beaches. Full details and trail maps at the CONAF station in the village.

Along the way, you’ve got a good chance of seeing chilla foxes and guanacos. And there’s a large variety of different cacti species on show, fed by the wet and misty blanket of the camanchaca.

A road leads to a beach with a "sugar loaf" hill in the background

Driving inside the national park

Desert landscape with cactus dotted around and mountains in background

The desert landscape inside the national park

Photo by Davide Zanchettin – licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

A rowing boat is parked outside a shed

A rowing boat with the main beach in the background

Elevated coastal view with cliffs and islands in the distance

View of the park’s coast and Isla Pan de Azucar

Photo by Davide Zanchettin – licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Isla Pan de Azucar

One of the biggest draws for most visitors is this small island just offshore.

It’s home to some 2000 Humboldt penguins, which can be viewed from a safe distance in a boat tour from Caleta (you can’t leave the boat).

It’s a very local affair in that you sign up at a small kiosk and then wait for the next tour. Prices are charged per boat (maximum ten people) and it’s a 90-minute round trip. So, out of season, if there’s less than ten on the tour, the prices will be higher.

Along the way, you’ll also see marine otters, sea lions, cormorants, Peruvian pelicans and a variety of other birds. And it’s a nice way to escape the dry heat of the desert for an hour or two.

A pelican stands on a rock with the sea behind

One of the many pelicans around

Two penguins standing together looking away from the camera

A couple of Humboldt penguins

A sea lion standing upright on a large rock

A sea lion refuses to look us in the eye

Final thoughts

Whilst it has its fair share of visitors, especially during the summer, Pan de Azucar still feels like a genuinely off-the-beaten-path destination. Indeed, if you can visit off-season and avoid the weekends, there’s a good chance you might have the place all to yourself.

Albeit in the company of 2000-or-so penguins and a whole raft of other desert and marine wildlife.

And we’ll settle for that!

What did you think? Have you been to Pan de Azucar, Chile? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Pan de Azucar in Chile is a stunning coastal desert sandwiched between the Pan-American Highway and the Pacific Ocean - and home to 2000 Humboldt penguins #wildcamping #chiletravel #chile #campervan #camperlife #ioverland #overlander #boondocking #traveldestinations #exploremore #travelinspiration #budgettravel #southamerica #southamericatravel
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

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