One of the (many) questions we asked ourselves when we decided to spend some time in Ecuador was could we afford to visit the Galapagos Islands? Along with the Amazon and Machu Picchu they are near the top of our “must-try-to-experience” locations. As we did the math for all three it was clear that for us a trip to the Amazon would work the best. It was a tough decision as we really wanted to get to the Galapagos but we just didn’t feel comfortable with the over $3,000 CAD price tag that we were looking at.
Then we heard about the “Poor Man’s Galapogas” and started doing a little research. As it turned out Isla de la Plata is located just about 100 km north of our base in Ballenita, so it was an easy decision to make the relatively short trip.
The main departure point for Isla de la Plata is Puerto Lopez, a fishing town of about 20,000 located in Manabi Province along the northern coast of Ecuador. We traveled by bus to Puerto Lopez from Santa Elena.
Most of the tours leave the main jetty around 10:00 so there is a large congregation of tourists, tour guides and other spectators milling about. It is a fairly new and attractive pier and loading the boats is well managed and done quickly from the floating dock.
There is plenty to watch while you wait as the fishing fleet lands their morning catches right beside the pier. Dozens of boats ride the surf to the beach where they are greeted by as many trucks, workers and hundreds of pelicans and frigatebirds looking for any unguarded scraps.
We booked our tour with Palo Santo in Puerto Lopez based on reviews of their commitment to environmental protection and promotion of the local community. Many companies are available to chose from in the local area but from what we saw Palo Santo was a good choice. Their boat was clean and in good condition, their guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and they paid attention to the safety and well being of their guests. The cost for the tour was $45 US each which is very reasonable.
Isla de la Plata lies about 40 km from Puerto Lopez and takes just over an hour to reach by boat. Our boat, as well as all the others we saw, was covered and had a toilet aboard. Everyone is required to wear a lifejacket. During the months of June to October humpback whales migrate through this area and the town swells with visitors to see these magnificent marine mammals. The tours at that time include several hours dedicated to whale watching. At this time of the year however the boats head straight to the island. We did see 5 resident tropical whales on our trips back and forth.
The name of the island is derived from one of two sources. Some say it is because of the treasure supposedly buried by Sir Francis Drake on the island. Others say it is because of the glistening silver colour of the large deposits of guano (bird droppings) which builds up on the island. Take your pick!
The island itself is about 4km long and is accessed by a small cove on the eastern shoreline. Wading ashore you are greeted by National Park staff and have an opportunity to wash your feet, use the facilities and receive a stern reminder of the rules of the island. As it is a protected area there is absolutely no collecting of any materials, you cannot leave anything at all on the island, you have to stay on the trails and are not to approach within 5 feet of the birds. You must be accompanied by a guide at all times and the numbers are limited to 10 per trail. These strict rules are necessary to ensure the birds are protected, are successful in their breeding, and the island remains in as natural a state as possible.
As you head onto the trail you immediately notice how dry and arid the island is. The soil is brown and dusty and the vegetation is thin and sparse. Apparently conditions had been particularly dry over the past few months. The paths are well maintained and the first 800m are pretty much uphill culminating in 150 steps to reach the junction point of the main trails.
There are three main trails and as the number of people are limited on each, our group of 16 was split into two smaller groups and we opted for the 2 km Fragatas loop which provided fine overviews of the island.
Did we mention that the sun is very hot on the equator? It was clear in the late morning and after the climb to the top of the hill we were all sweating profusely.
A few minutes later we had our first close up encounter with a blue-footed booby. It was a juvenile and not in its full plumage and distinctive blue webbed feet. As we soon discovered they paid little attention to us and went about their activities which at that time of day was mainly trying to stay cool.
It soon became apparent to us that we were at a privileged location. A male and his week-old chick were particularly endearing and the helplessness of the young featherless bird was obvious. The parents will stay with their young until they are proficient fishermen and then they are left on their own.
Numerous small lizards inhabited the island and were equally as approachable as the birds. The island is also similar to the Galapagos in that it is a critical breeding area for many endangered birds such as the waved albatross. We were told that the collared-warbling finch, which we did spot, is endemic to the island. Other breeding birds on the island include red-footed boobies and red-billed tropicbirds which we spotted on the trip back.
Following the path along the spine of the island we were treated to panoramic views of the shoreline below, the western tip of the island and suddenly scores of magnificent frigatebirds. As with the boobies, there were many young adults and fledglings. We only saw a few of the males with their characteristic inflated scarlet breasts inflated and these were at a distance.
The opportunity to approach these birds in their natural surroundings is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were fortunate to have had this experience. There are far too few places left where human impacts have not left a negative impression on natural habitats.
After about 2 hours we descended the stairs and hillside to the landing area with its dark sand and gently rolling swells. We were exhausted from the heat and very sore, but undeniably satisfied with our experience.
Back on the boat we had a welcome meal of sandwiches, watermelon and cold drinks. The afternoon concluded with a snorkeling opportunity along with several other tour boats just off the shore of the island. We were pleasantly surprised by the health of the coral and the multitude of fish, several species of which were new to us.
It rained on the ride back to Puerto Lopez, but we did see some stingrays jumping and a couple more whales. The group was quiet, several falling asleep, after a combination of fresh air, hot temperatures, a good hike and swim and the rolling of the boat.
If you are in this part of Ecuador and don’t feel you have the means to make it to the Galapagos Islands we would highly recommend this trip. Regardless of how many offshore islands you have visited you will appreciate the natural beauty and balance of Isla de la Plata.