Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
‘Nothing but a dirt road town’.. ‘not much to write home about’.. ‘forget the town’.. some of the perceptions of Puerto Lopez left by fellow travelers on TripAdvisor. With these in the back of our minds it’s not hard to land somewhere and have an instant negative perception of the place. Puerto Lopez is a small town with a nice beach frontage and a small community of locals living in reasonable to poor standards. We disembarked from the bus and walked the 4 or 5 blocks toward to beach looking for signs of tourist infrastructure. With no prior hostel booking, only a brief availability exchange with a hostel via email, the best bet we had of finding the place was to head to the towns tourist area. Along the beach front we sought some local advise and were directed to the south of town, past the river and soon found Hostel Monte Libano on the fringe of the community.
Greeted by two bounding hounds at the entrance we walked inside to find a sleeping Ecuadorian man, spread out on the couch, round belly exposed with a small grey cat in a chair opposite. Pedro, as he turned out to be was the husband of Maria who ran the guesthouse out of their home. We made a few coughing noises, threw out a few ‘Hola’s’ and scruffy haired and full bellied he got up, greeted us coyly and shouted for Maria.
Maria appeared through the kitchen and showed us the various options available for lodging. We went from single room, shared bathroom to single room; roof punched out, tree house staircase installed up to wooden deck with hammock to double room with private bathroom. We took the private bathroom option. The room was kind of like they’d renovated their garage as our roof was corrugated iron and there was a mish-mash of electrical wiring and conduit all over the walls. Add to that wooden load-baring beams and you’ve got the perfect habitat for Ecuadorian house-spiders. About the size of the huntsman spiders back home. We cleared 2 or 3 from the closet before putting our bags in and settling in.
We wandered back into town along the dirt road, one of the house hounds as our companion, wandering off the track here and there to sniff another dogs butt, bark at some kids, chase a kitten but always returning to where-ever we happened to be. We felt special. He was our companero; and his name was ‘Aquija’ .. turns out he does that to everyone though as Maria explained later. Just a hussy then.
There’s really not a lot for the average tourist Joe beyond the beach promenade, with the exception of the bus station and associated ticket offices some 4 or 5 blocks back. The beach front is lovely, palm lined with a few quiet bamboo beach shacks serving up drinks and juices. The sidewalk is all upheaved by the roots of trees, and road dusty and unpaved in most sections. Shopfronts are basic, and in some cases derelict, but not without character. Moto-taxis fly up and down the street along with customised utility vehicles with irregular tyre sizes exceeding the width of wheel arches.
There’s a port where fishing boats pull up to the beach, anticipating the construction of soon-to-be-completed jetty, and unload their fish. Skillful fisherman balance crates of fresh fish on their heads as they walk from the boat to the shore, giant sea birds dive-bombing the crate of fish.
You can find some great restaurants along the waterfront; we ate at Bellavista, a great Italian place serving up $6 plates of pasta accompanied by the lost but not forgotten hits of Gloria Estafan. There’s also a great Colombian cafe where one can have ‘real’ coffee with a typical corn tortilla for breakfast.
We pretty quickly hooked up with a local reputable dive shop that organises tours to nearby Isla De La Plata, or better known as ‘Poor Mans Galapagos’. Reason for this is that the island, some 40 kilometers from the mainland has a diverse population of bird species, generally only found on the Galapagos, but accessible to those without the substantial funds at hand to get there. On the way, given it was August, the peak of the migratory humpback season, we had a pretty good chance of spotting some whales.
It would have been a great opportunity to do some diving as well but given we were on fairly limited time and budget, and visibility is not reputed to be all that decent, I opted to wait until we’ll shortly be in the Caribbean. So it was difficult to watch the groups gathering in the morning with their dive bags, getting on the boat but I kept telling myself I had better things coming.
We were bundled onto a nearby boat at the sea-port with a bunch of other English speaking tourists. Were given life jackets to wear and a briefing. The water was flat, and the day over cast so the conditions were comfortable for the hour or so trip out to the island. On the way we saw the backs of humpback whales crest through the waves, their tiny dorsal fins confusing me for a moment.. ‘killer whales?’.. I thought, I had no idea humpbacks had a small dorsal fin.
We reached the island and jumped off the boat onto the black sand. The desert island rises sharply just beyond the beach, the cliff faces covered in white guano from the islands bird inhabitants, one of two possible explanations for the islands name. The other being the uncovered stash of 40 tonnes of pirate silver from Francis Drake; discovered on the island. Fortunately there was a great ankle deep wading pool to rinse your feet from the beach sand before embarking on the 5 kilometer hike. ‘Ew… Verrucas..’ said a gayish Sydney guy in our group.
Soon after everyone had had a quick glance at each others feet we were trekking a small inclined path up to the point at which the various hikes around the island departed. We were already moving at a cracking pace. For the sake of getting in and out of boats, I’d worn my Vans slip-on shoes, several people had hiking boots, others simply had thongs. Our Ecuadorian guide was fully equipped with hydration pack and exposure suits. By the time we’d climbed the rickety stairs to the departure point, we’d lost a group of older Italians. Some smarty in our group said they wanted to do the 4 kilometer trek over all other options. So naturally everyone else followed suit and before we knew it we had a good 4 and a bit hours of hiking ahead of us.
One of the big draw cards to the island is it’s plentiful arrays of different types of Boobys. We very quickly came across the first type the Blue Footed Booby, true to it’s name, it looks as though it’s walked through a tube of Colgate minty blue toothpaste, it’s a largish seabird thats mostly white bar it’s greyish wings. The birds are monogamous for a period of about 9 or so months, after which they switch partners. We most often saw them in pairs along the trail. Or sitting on the ground in a pile of their own excretement. The male has this high pitched whistling sound, as though you were blowing through a long tube with a very small whistle point at the end. The female has this kind of grunting sound. And they both trumble along the ground with their enormous oversized duckish type feet. Really beautiful birds and unique in that they’re generally seen only here, the Galapagos, and some isolated parts of California. Though we’d seen so many by the end of the tour we just bloody wanted to shoo them from the path, but you can’t you have to leave them alone and walk through the vegetation. Tss.. nature.
The trail continues down to the topmost point of the cliff face which drops some 200m or so into the blue ocean below. It’s a craggy cliff face around the island and remind us much of the Great Ocean Road back home, not only for the landscape, but the craggy vegetation as well. We’re standing there admiring the view, waiting for the rest of our group to catch up. When finally the Verruca gay man catches up, he’s accosted by the guide
for using his flash. ‘Por Favor!’ the guide yells as Verruca coyly apologises and joins the rest of the group.
Next on our bird-list is the Nazca Booby, a bird from Nazca in Peru (where those aliens made the lines in the earth). Kind of looks like a seagull but with a longer orange beak and black wingtips. Slightly larger than the Blue Footed Booby, we happened to catch one nesting two eggs. Typically the first to hatch will push the remaining egg off the cliff without parental intervention. We saw one juvenile hatchling, as big as it’s parent but grey, fluffy and guilty looking.
By the time we’d ended the hike we’d spotted the Red Footed Booby and the impressive red chest of the Frigate birds, inflated and ballooned, blowing in the wind, they looked more like nicely coloured goiters. Hardly an effective mechanism for finding a mate but then again, I’m not a female Frigate bird.
After we’d taken in some snorkeling just up from the island landing where we’d seen some impressive angel fish, clown fish and a watermelon chewing green sea turtle, we were again on our way back to Puerto Lopez in search of more whales. I think I kept up the whole ‘look out for sea for any sign of whales’ thing for about 20 minutes. The poor Spanish girl across from me was still looking some 20 minutes later. ‘Give up girl’ I thought, just as she pointed wildly into the distance. Two other boats had cottened onto it, but we quickly saw what the fuss was about. Suddenly, out of the water emerged the barnacled head and body of a humpback whale; it’s jaw opening briefly before plunging back into the water, smashing the surface into spray and disappearing in a vortex of water. Wow I thought, but it was only 15 seconds later that it did it again, and again after that; like it was competing in some underwater hurdle race. We followed it for some 10 minutes watching it rise and fall from and into the water, at time accompanied by a pod of dolphins. The magnitude and power of some of the worlds biggest creatures in the vastness and grey depths of the ocean was almost overwhelming. It reminds you again for just a powerful instant of the mammoth size of the world beneath the waves. After all the oohs and ahhs had settled down on the boat we had a bit of a moment just watching this prehistoric creature in it’s breeding rituals. Nothing really but a soft rumble from the boat engine and the spray as the whale breaches the water and slap and crash as it falls again beneath the surface. Truly a life enriching experience.
The next day, we’d gotten word of a beautiful beach tucked into the nearby Manchilla national park, accessible by bus, then 3 kilometer walk. We ventured to the bus station, jumped on a local service and bumbled down the road at top speed toward Los Frailes beach. Though we’d told the driver, it was only by some miracle that some guy wanted to get on and the bus stopped, allowing us to quickly ask if we we should get off. We did and ventured back up the road a bit to the gate.
The dusty path twisted it’s way for 3 kilometers before opening up to the sloping yellow sands of Los Frailes, not quite small enough to be a cove, not large enough to be a bay but enclosed somewhat by craggy cliffs on either side. It was a beautiful day, sunny and not too crowded, so we ended our time in Puerto Lopez soaking in the until now absent Ecuadorian sunshine. We were due to head further north in the next few days to Bahia de Caraquez, we’d gotten word of an organic farm somewhere up that way and wanted to to check it out.