April 22, 2007

The Coast of Ecuador Has Abundant Exotic Wildlife

By Peter Johnson

I gripped the slippery sides of the speedboat I as it bucked the swollen surf. Through the squall I could just make out the words on the pilot's vest: Escuela Paramilitar. I held on and, before long, neither the mainland behind us nor the island to which we were headed was visible.

This Bond-style ride wasn't quite what I'd expected. I was, after all, not on a drug-running mission but bound for Isla de la Plata to do a spot of birdwatching. But the 90-minute ride out from Puerto Lopez was exhilarating; there were eight of us, all bouncing about as we gunned it out to the open sea. The pilot seemed to enjoy hitting the rolling waves at the worst possible angle.

But after about 15 minutes he suddenly wound down the accelerator and shouted, " Ballena!" Whales. There, only 300 yards off our bow were the plumes of humpback whales. We stayed down-wind of the beast and gave him the space his 30-ton bulk required. He rolled over to spy on us, edged slowly towards the bobbing boat and, occasionally, lobtailed to show us who was master of the milieu.

I'd come to Isla de la Plata because, I'd been told, it was the "poor man's Galapagos". After a few days hitching up Ecuador's Pacific Coast - which has a small but committed surf and beach-bum scene and, for the mature traveller, quite a bit of maritime history - I'd wound up in Puerto Lopez. It's a classic antediluvian beach town, with a few good restaurants, quirky family-run hotels, gnarled old fishermen and the inevitable cybercafes. Far from the backpacker trails of Quito and the volcano region, it's a low-budget, serene region in which to slow down and hang out with the locals. In three days I made friends with half a dozen people and was never stuck for drinking and dining companions. But you come mainly for the nature. The humpbacks pass between the island and mainland en route from Antarctica to warmer waters off Mexico. If you go between June and September, you are almost certain to see them. But the pleasures of the island are there all year round and it is a truly remote wilderness, burgeoning with life.

Isla de la Plata is an uninhabited and relatively untainted lump of rock 22 nautical miles off the coast with sheer cliff walls rising to a gently sloping tableland of dry tropical forest. The walk up a steep, well-marked path on to the tableland takes only 30 minutes, and you are immediately among the hubbub of marine birdlife. The only permanent residents are colonies of seabirds. These include magnificent frigate birds, which live up to that modifier when airborne and, in the case of the males, when his red throat is puffed up to attract females, red-billed tropic birds and boobies. These last are the most popular, the blue-footed boobies with their surreal swimming-pool-blue footwear, and the nazca booby, with their cute, fluffy chicks.

There are also small colonies of sealions and porpoises at the base of the cliffs, but you have to make an effort to see these. I didn't, but I was more than satisfied with my Darwin-style experience of fearless, beautiful birds. After a spot of lunch, we went for a dive and I brushed flippers with iridescent tropical fish.

I found out later that we'd been swimming in Bahia Drake. Apparently, Britain's great naval bad boy, Sir Francis Drake, came a- pillaging here in the 16th century, and it is said that he used Isla de la Plata as an outpost for planning trips to the mainland bays used by the Spanish Armada.

Back on land, the natural high goes on. Puerto Lopez's Machalilla National Park is not exactly pretty. The dry tropical forest that the 35,000-acre park protects is yellow and sad-looking for most of the year. But there are some truly gorgeous and wholly unspoilt beaches, and a small nature and archaeological reserve run by descendants of the native Manteos. It's great that much of the park is preserved from footpaths, but it's frustrating if you fancy hiking or camping away from civilisation.

Nonetheless, inside a couple of hours, I was able to see - without binoculars - 20 bird species, including woodstars, parakeets and siskins and, on the forest floor, tinamous dashing around like road-runners. There are more than 230 bird species here, as well as deer, anteaters, armadillos, ocelots, and two species of monkey, so I had barely skimmed the surface. Again the day was rounded off with a swim on a completely isolated beach. The Ecuadorean coast is still very ramshackle, but it's always exciting to see a coast before it really happens. As for its title of "poor man's Galapagos", until last week that was nothing more than a useful sales tag. But with the news that the Galapagos Islands' ecosystem is in peril and Ecuador about to set restrictions on tourism, those islands could be forced off the map - or on to the map of the ultra-rich. It already costs at least [pound]2,000 to visit Galapagos.

In contrast, Puerto Lopez is reachable by bus - a four-hour [pound]2 ride from the airport at Guayaquil - and is five-minutes drive from the Machalilla National Park. For [pound]30, you get a boat ride and access to the park and Isla de la Plata. Throw in Drake, ceviches, birding and beaches, and that's rich pickings for any traveller.



As part of a longer itinerary, Journey Latin America (020-8622 8491; journey-latinamerica.co.uk) offers a three-night package to Ecuador's coast, including a visit to Isla de la Plata, from [pound]345 per person, based on two sharing. This includes return flights from Quito, full-board accommodation at Mantarraya Lodge, and guided excursions to the Los Frailes beach and Machalilla National Park. Return flights to Quito start from [pound]650 return.


Ecuador Tourism (vive-cuador.com). Latin American Travel Association (020-8715 2913; lata.org).

1. Guayaquil

Ecuador's biggest city. Visit the Plaza Centenario, which is populated by scuttling iguanas and stroll along the ultra-smart promenade known as the Malecn2000. Built to welcome in the millennium, it forms part of Guayaquil's major image overhaul.

2. Salinas

This is the beach for Guayaqul's moneyed set, awash with windsurfers and beautiful people. The Museo Naval Arqueolgico (open Wed-Sun) houses an important collection of objects relating to the indigenous coastal tribes of pre-Columbian times.

3. Olon

Visit the wooden church at Olon - the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Starfish.

This modern structure, which was to celebrate an appearance of the Virgin Mary, is perched on a clifftop.

4. Montanita

This is coastal Ecuador's main gringo town and it's a funky little place packed with wooden houses, huge banana trees and tiny bars that pour out on to the sandy main street.

5. Puerto Lopez

Watch the fishermen bringing their catch of bass, wahoo, marlin and grouper, and assorted shellfish.

6. Machalilla park

Go bird-watching in the inland area of Machalilla National Park: as the only park that protects coastal dry forest it is unique in the country. There is also an indigenous village trail, which visitors can do in the company of a guide.

7. Salango

Salango is small, laid-back fishing village, which is just about getting used to the idea of tourism. People make the pilgrimage from Puerto Lopez especially to lunch on shellfish right on the coast at the Delfin Magico (00 593 4 278 0291).

8. Los Frailes

See another side to the Machalilla National Park with a visit to the coast at Los Frailes - easily the nicest beach here. Be sure to look out for deer and monkeys beyond the dunes.

9. Bahia de Caraquez

Explore the bays and wildlife areas north of Puerto Lopez, and spend a day exploring the Bahia de Caraquez, just beyond Manta - an eco-city, famous for its organic shrimp farms. It's also an ideal base for joining birding tours of the Isla Corazon. This is where visitors can be taken by canoe through the dense mangrove swamps.

10. Montecristi

Take a detour inland to Montecristi, one of few old-style colonial towns along the coast. Visit the church, the main plaza and the fruit market. This is where some 20 weavers continue to make the original Panama hats using plaited leaves from a native palm tree.

The hats originated here in the 18th century and were used by workers on the Panama Canal.

Small stores sell the hats and you can usually haggle.