Heading out of Guayaquil towards the coast, we start to take small local buses. Our first stop is in an unattractive but friendly town called Santa Elena. Waiting at the side of the road we flag down another bus that will take us along the Ecuador coast towards Lopez. Unfortunately the bus is full so we’re standing all the way, hanging on as the driver screeches around the coastal road.
About an hour into the two hour bus ride gringos start to appear and join us on the bus. Small fishing villages make way for beach restaurants and bars and we know we are getting near to Montanita, a surfing and party mecca prized by the locals as much as visiting tourists. We are coming back here after Lopez for a few days before heading into central Ecuador again.
We are making our way to Puerto Lopez on a wing and a prayer. It is known for being one of the best placed on the planet to see humpback whales doing humpback whale stuff. They come here in their hundreds around July-August to mate and then rest before the long migration to the Arctic. We arrive in town in mid-September so chances of seeing anything are slim, at best we might see a whale rise for air but that’s about it. Nevertheless we buy a ticket on a boat out to Isla de la Plata (silver island) about an hour of the coast. It will give us our best chance to see some whales but also we can look around the island so it won’t be a wasted trip.
Puerto Lopez is a bit ramshackle. Trucks thunder continually down the main road just three blocks parallel to the beach road. The beach road itself is a strip of fish restaurants and bars, and it’s all a bit pre-fab. A guide book described it as a town still in shock from the initial tourist boom, and although off-season there only around 20-30 gringos in town, we expect to see them all on the boat tomorrow. Nobody stays around long here, it’s whales or no whales then outta here.
We are staying in a mucho cheapo hostel called Maxima between the main and beach roads. It’s a robust collection of rooms and patios run buy an ex-pat Canadian. There is a pet rabbit, two dogs and a rescued kinkajou for amusement.
We opt for the roof rooms at $8 each a night. It’s actually a tin shed built on the roof to provide some extra accommodation but there is a shower, hot water and it’s warm. Not pretty, but then not a lot of buildings over here are. There is a common building regulation here (and in Peru, Bolivia etc.) that says you only have to pay tax on your new house when building its completed. This has led to most houses being left deliberately unfinished to avoid payment. The common method is to leave the top floor half built, with concrete support columns and wire sticking out the flat roof, and a few breeze blocks placed irregularly around the walls. Smart, but leaves smaller cities looking like a war zone.
The next morning we are up early and trudge our way down to the beach. The fishing boats are in and the locals are still offloading last night’s catch onto the beach. All gutting takes place right on the beach, the air is a bit thick with fish bits. Frigates and pelicans fill the skies, swooping feet from us to pick up discarded, unidentified entrails.
It’s about 12 people to each boat and there are about four boats going out to the island. As expected, we recognise almost everybody just from walking the beach strip yesterday. We are duly informed that we probably won’t see any whales but the time on the island will be fun.
About 45 minutes into the trip, about 20 metres off starboard (is that left or right, sod it – I’m sticking with starboard) a whale fully breaches the water and crashes down. It’s only the second time I’ve involuntarily made an “ooh” noise on the trip (the first galloping on horseback in Bolivia). For the next 15 minutes we are given the full show. Two whales on one side of the boat show off to a female while another performance takes place on the other. Trying not to be too preoccupied with taking photos, we manage to get a few good ones before they swim away.
We were very lucky; the whales should not be mating this time of year and we are told the rest of the 400-strong pod are resting in the deep, only coming up for air.
Isla de la Plata itself is very nice and worth the trip, although to be honest we could all go home now and be happy. It’s called Silver Island for two reasons: Firstly because William Drake was forced to drop a horde of silver off the coast whilst being chased by Spaniards; and secondly because the cliffs are painted a silver colour thanks to all the bird crap. I’m leaning with the latter as being slightly more believable.
We walk around the island for about an hour, and see hundreds of blue footed boobies and other birds. The landscape is how I imagine the Shetland islands to look – it’s ragged and barren but so remote it’s kinda exciting.
We have an unexpected bonus. After a small lunch on the boat, when we thought we would have some time to snorkel, we are told the water just off the beach is teeming with giant turtles. I scramble into my swimming trunks and jump overboard. Leah and I spend the next 20 minutes swimming with the fellas and they swim so close they regularly brush against us. In fact, one actually swam straight into my face, they are definitely not the sharpest.
It was an incredible day, well worth the dodgy fish food and drab town. Tomorrow we are out of here back to Montanita for a few days R&R.