The Poor Man’s Galapagos

Where? Isla de la Plata, Ecuador
When? August 2018
With whom? Martin, two Dutch travellers and a fellow Brit.

Our two month stint in South America was amazing, to the point that when we were reminiscing last weekend we got sad before getting excited about Ukraine this week, New York next month and Indonesia in the summer. We had a rough idea of where we wanted to go and our return flights from the UK were set in stone, but everything else was decided only a day or two in advance, sometimes not knowing where we’d be sleeping that night. This is the way to live.

We were gagging for the Galapagos, type it in Google image and you’ll feel the same with the lush white beaches and ample wildlife, but type it in to a flight search and you might rethink your decision. We decided that we didn’t have enough time or money to see the islands this time but one day when we are rich, we will return. It was simply down to luck that we heard some fellow backpackers in Banos, Ecuador, saying that you can get a 40 USD day trip from Puerto Lopez to Isla de la Plata which is known to all as the poor man’s Galapagos. Intrigued, we found out that there is a bus from Banos to Puerto Lopez, allowing us to change at Santa Elena.

This was a simple overnight bus which should have been absolutely fine but ended up with a bit of an allergic reaction to Benadryl that a kind American had offered me to help me doze off and consequently some vom. We only had holey plastic bags so whilst my aim was infallible, Martin’s coat fell victim.

Puerto Lopez is a small town that hasn’t been completely invaded by tourists, we used it as a great opportunity to practise our Spanish. Most tourists we met were staying about half an hour up the road in a place called Salango, but there are enough hostels in Puerto Lopez if you would rather convenience.

There are lots of companies that run this tour and the price varies but only slightly. If you prefer the package a company is offering for 35 USD then go for it, but be warned, these companies are renowned for taking you to the island and then telling you that you cannot go on it. For that reason, we stuck with the 40USD reputable company called Aventuras.

We rocked up at 9am at the office and were split into smaller groups to transport us across the small section of the Pacific Ocean to get to Isla de la Plata; the journey lasts approximately 80 minutes and during this time we saw so many whales. At first, close to the mainland, we only saw a few fins out of the water that made it look like they were waving at us, but as we got further out, we’d see more of the whales as they breached the surface of the water Lochness-monster style. It gave us an idea of their magnitude even though we only saw a fraction of their bodies, already bigger than our entire boat.

Our guide, Erick, explained to us that the whales have so much blubber that Ecuadorian waters are far too hot for them, spending most of the year in Arctic waters. They have to move to warmer seas for mating season as their offspring are born with only a few inches of blubber that wouldn’t protect them from the brutal Arctic temperatures.

We stopped in the water and saw the most spectacular of all of our whale sights – they began jumping out of the water and falling back in, causing a tremendous splash. We were all completely mesmerised, none of us having seen anything quite like it and all murmuring in agreement that we had already received our money’s worth! Our guide got to the point that he decided to stop pointing out the whales around us as we had seen so many.

As we approached Isla de la Plata, we were surrounded by a fleet of frigates who were also amidst their mating season. We climbed out of the boat and started our hike. Erick took us up, stopping each time we saw a blue-footed booby, names such because they look so silly as they waddle, also in mating season. He explained that each year, the boobies take a new partner and share custody of the egg until up to three birds hatch. The firs three months, the parents teach the younglings how to fly and hunt. Out of the siblings, the strongest will eat all of the food brought back to them so that the others starve and die.

We cam across innumerable couple, each at different stages of the mating process – some were singing (it sounded like that croaky noise from that horror film ‘The Grudge’) to impress their mate into sexytime, some were manning the nest, others were hatching, and there was one healthy baby amongst two dying babies.

Our hike ended up at a view point that gave us great view of the thousands of frigates that surrounded us, completely black in colour apart from a red tumour-like growth on the males’ chins. This is supposed to show off to the females, and apparently, size matters.

Back to the boat to snorkel around the back of the island, where allegedly the sealife is raring. We were handed goggles, a tube, and flippers and jumped straight into the water. For a country literally named after the equator, you would think the water would be warm. It wasn’t.

We stuck our heads straight into the water to make the most of this time checking out the marine life. We saw thousands of fish, some were reflectively purple like a special effect, bouncing the sunlight from their scales, and others were impressive simply by the sheer numbers in which they swam.

We dived down to get closer looks and glimpses of the fish and saw a huge stingray, 6-7 foot in diameter, chilling on the ocean floor. Its massive eyes followed us as we swam past, as its body stayed remarkably still. Swimming alongside the sea turtles was definitely my highlight.

What is the word for sunbathing when there is no sun? We did that as Erick manoeuvred the boat back towards the mainland again. We saw just as many whales on the way back, still compelling us to “ooh” and “ahh” each time.

We invited everyone in our group of drinks along the beach front, where everything is set up in neon colours with cheap cocktails and local music. We found a bar and haggled down the price of mojitos and shared drinking games and travel stories. I learned how to count to 21 in Dutch, which I am sure will be wholly useful in life. Floris, one of the Dutch people who taught us the numbers, also imparted his wisdom of his salsa moves with Martin, who got a few surprises (check out the video below).

We knew none of the Ecuadorian music but we danced the night away with the locals nonetheless, trying to copy their Latino moves. This was not reciprocated when the Macarena came on, instead the locals completely vacated the dancefloor and watched in horror as the group gringos (tourists) performed the classic line dance from start to finish. Afterwards, we realised that we must have looked like a terrible amateur dance group to all these people who didn’t know the macarena.

Info: Puerto Lopez has enough connections that it is easily accessible from Guayaquil, Banos, and Quito. Whale mating season is from July through August, so it is definitely worth booking for this time of year. The weather is grey and overcast, despite what you might expect from Ecuador, so bring a jumper too, especially for the wind chill of the boat journeys. You cannot stay overnight on Isla de la Plata so you are restricted to day trips. Ecuador uses USD as its currency and is trying to persuade Venezuela to do the same..

If you decide to go to the Galapagos, it has return flights from Guayaquil for $350 USD as a fixed price, so make sure you don’t pay any more than that, and then you have to pay entry to the islands on top of this, then accommodation etc. I have no idea where the sunny pictures come from, as we saw no sunshine for the entirety of our time in Ecuador.

On the beach in Puerto Lopez, there is a sea turtle sanctuary, where local marine biologists collect injured sea turtles and rehabilitate them until they are fit to go back into the ocean. We walked about a mile along the beach to find this place to ensure that we had seen sea turtles in case we didn’t get to on our snorkel trip, which we did but it is not guaranteed.

Tip of the week: Go with a trusted company. Aventuras is one of the reputable companies that does Isla de la Plata day tours but there are a couple of others. Check the reviews to ensure that you trust the company, as many tourists told us of their journey to the island and how they were refused entry because the quota of tourists on the island had already been reached that day. Also, book in advance, as the quote fills up quickly.

Product of the week: It has to be the Aventuras day trip! For 40 USD, we felt as though we had our money’s worth in the first hour, and then we also got to swim with sea turtles! amazing.

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