Isla de la Plata: Poor Man’s Galapagos

Just to our right came another giant splash, this time closer still than the dozens before.  The whales had moved to a mere stones throw from our boat, where they repeatedly erupted from and crashed to the waters surface.  Whether oblivious or uncaring, these three beautiful creatures had been following alongside us, fins and tails raised as they seemingly competed for largest flop and resulting splash.  Giant humpbacks, numbering in the thousands, filled the ocean off the coast of Ecuador as they had every season for recorded history and we were floating in their midst.

We were lured to the coast of Ecuador for more than just beaches.  In fact, as we later confirmed, this was not the ideal coast for beach goers.  We had come here to witness the huge whale migration, where countless giants travel from Antarctica to breed or birth their calves in this one special spot.

Whales watching in Ecuador
Humpback Whale

Despite being located near the equator, a strange phenomenon keeps the micro climate in this particular location much colder than expected.  Ocean currents traveling from the south bring cold water from Antarctica to meet warm currents from the north.  The result is a notably cooler environment and waters rich with nutrients hosting an ocean packed with life.

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Green Sea Turtle

We have seen whales in the past.  We have paid plenty of money to search them out in Iceland, where we were lucky to see a few tails at a distance.  We even used specialty audio equipment off the coast of New Zealand to improve our chances and managed to find nada.  But this was different.  Ecuador hosts some of the richest waters on Earth and seeing whales here in the dry winter season is all but inevitable whether intended or not.  This outsized chance helps keep the cost of whale watching low.  In fact, it is thrown onto most every tour or excursion in Puerto López involving a boat, cause why not.

Blue footed boobies, Isla de la Plata, Ecuador
Blue Footed Boobies.  Female (right) is larger than the male (left) and has brighter feet.

Off the coast of Puerto López is one of only two island areas of Ecuador which are protected within the National Park system.  One area, the Galapagos, needs no introduction.  It is one of the most famously wild places on earth, with prices and crowds to match.  The second is Isla de la Plata, part of Machalilla National Park, which has affectionately gained the nickname as the Poor Mans Galapagos due to its attainability within most budgets.

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Pygmy Killer Whale

While it lacks some of the most sought after species found in Galapagos including water iguanas, seals and giant tortoises, it does have a number of famous bird species including the blue footed boobie and frigate, plus killer whales and dolphins.  Oh and humbback whales.  Did we mention those?

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Red Billed Tropic Bird

Taking a trip to Isla de la Plata is simple.  Trips are sold and organized by many agencies in Puerto López, which is reachable easily from Guayaquil.  We chose Naturis at the recommendation of our homestay, paying just $40 for an eight hour trip including a bi-lingual guided tour of la Isla and several hours of whale watching.  That price, affordable to even a poor man, can still leave room for other pricier experiences in South America like hiking in El Cocuy (seriously, do it).

 

We arrived at the dock at the allotted time to catch our small skiff to la Isla.  Heading out to the island, it would be tough not to notice the two ocean currents battling for direction with us caught in the middle.  If not for the ever present company of dozens of whales and a little dramamine, this churning may have been nauseating.  With the winds whipping and sea spray on full blast, we were happy to have seats under roof with a vinyl window covering the wet side of the boat.  (Make sure you aren’t one of the poor souls sitting in the open area out back unless you enjoy long cold salt water showers.)

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On land an hour and a half later we wandered amongst countless seabirds on the windswept cliffs, watching as they nested, fed their young and circled above the tropical blue coastal waters.  The highly photogenic crowd favorite, the boobie (sorry Heff, the conversationally appropriate kind) seemed to pose for us at every turn.  A short hike around the island uncovered enough wonder to satisfy even our adventurous hearts before we headed back to sea.

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That afternoon, as we slowly motored and violently rocked our way back to mainland, we encountered many more whales and calves seemingly close enough to touch.  As we swayed past, our new giant friends appeared to wave in acknowledgement that we would soon meet again.  This December when we sail across the infamously tumultuous Drake Passage in the tracks of Ernest Shackleton and into Antarctica, we plan to do exactly that.  Until next time, friends, we will see you soon.

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With the slight exception of the churning boat ride, this trip was very enjoyable and well worth a visit to the coast.  Other than Isla de la Plata and whale watching, Puerto López has plenty of other things to do.  The local favorite Frailes beach, part of the Machalilla National Park, is one of the prettier and relatively warmer locations on the surrounding coast.  It is easily reached with a $1 shared taxi ride a few kilometers from town.  We even tried our hand at horseback riding in the nearby jungle while spotting monkeys.  Surprisingly different from the cold arid coastline, this wet and humid microclimate has all of the vegetation not found around Puerto López, along with the mud you have been missing.  If none of this sounds like your speed, you could just come to eat seafood in whale sized quantities (only without the krill).

 


Getting to Puerto Lopez From Guayaquil

Getting from Guayaquil to Puerto López is straight forward.  Simply take one of the many direct buses from the main Guayaquil Terrestre Bus Terminal located just to the north of the airport.  The terminal is incredible and actually more like a mall than a bus station.  Buses leave every thirty minutes throughout the day with direct access to Puerto López.  The trip takes around four hours and costs $5.50.  Just ask anyone when you arrive and they can point the way.

Before you hop on a coach in Ecuador, read up on how to keep your belongings secure. This country is known for theft on buses.


Check out this picture from the Galapagos we took circa 2005, back when film was still a thing.  Wow camera quality has improved a lot since then!  Want to see what we carry now?  (Hint: it’s perfect for minimalist packing!)

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If you are heading to Peru next through the Aguas Verdes border, you will want to read our detailed experience.

Planning a trip to South America?  Don’t forget to add Colombia!  It is easily one of the best countries for travel in the world, and often gets left off of itineraries.  Or take a look at some of our other favorite locations for hiking and wildlife in Ecuador:


So seriously, are you ready to get out and see the world?  There is a lot more to life than simply working.  We used to have corporate careers but became inspired to go against the grain.  We extensively planned our trip, turned in our resignation letters, packed our bags and left everything else behind.  You can read our story here.

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Beware the Frigate birds.  Hitchcock was right…

3 thoughts on “Isla de la Plata: Poor Man’s Galapagos

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