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beaches and the poor man's galapagos

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

Puerto Lopez is a small fishing village on the coast, a mere 12 hour bus ride from Quito. I embarked on this journey with Phil and Laura. Though the bus ride was not ideal (delays enroute of at least an hour due to an accident ahead, ambulances zooming by) at least we were about to travel at night and not miss out on a day. The driver tried to make up for as much as possible, only slowing down slightly for the speed bumps, zipping around corners as we ascended and descended the mountains, and playing chicken once or twice trying to pass the huge mack trucks heeding our passage.

Luckily once we got there, it was easy going. This small town is easily navigated and we found our beachfront hostel quickly. After settling into our treehouse-like bungalow, we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast the hostel offers. Much better than many continental breakfasts I’ve had in the past.

Monday: day of arrival. This weather was kinda gross, overcast and misting/drizzling all day, but we didn’t let that stop us. We explored the village streets, walked along the beach, played on a swing set, and did some reading (me)/napping (them) on the beach as well. It is really pretty there. Unfortunately, we were informed by some locals that due to the conflicting air currents that come together in this region, there is usually little sun. Therefore, we could not expect much more than this type of overcast day. Oh well. We made the most of it, lounging mostly on the beach or in the hammocks in our hostel’s courtyard, decorated with plentiful plants, trees, flowers and pets. They had two dogs: Scooby Doo (a beautiful black and gray spotted Great Dane, very chill) and Canela (=cinnamon in English, a small pup whose breed I cannot identify, but an energetic pup). There was also Raita, a guanta…what this is in English I have no clue. It looked like a giant hamster, and she certainly had personality. When Scooby Doo ate Raita’s portion of dinner, Raita had no problem running up to Scooby Doo and biting him on the leg (it’s all she could reach). Fun pets to observe, indeed.

Other interesting animals to observe were the crabs that littered the beach with tiny holes. We spent a bit of time sitting on the beach and I took to observing these funny workers. Though the crabs nearest our resting place stayed hidden, the others just a few yards away were quickly back out, doing their business. It was so funny to watch them and learn about their different mannerisms and personalities. At this point you're probably scoffing or shaking your head or laughing a bit. That's okay. But really, these crabs were full of personality. One of the bigger crabs worked slowly to clear sand out of his home (the holes all of the beach). He'd scoop the sand out with his claw very slowly and then meticulously pat it down, doing a little dance over the pile of sand he'd created to the side of the hole. Another crab had a very different approach. He just chucked the sand out of his hole and left it wherever it landed. He was a bit lazy I think. Another was just running back and forth across the wet sand, near the tide coming in; I think he was practicing his dueling skills. Some crabs were timid while others went around messing up everyone elses work. It was hilarious. I really enjoyed watching these little critters.

Also on Monday we went to the restaurant at Hotel Mandala, which is wicked sweet but out of our price range for accommodations. Luckily, the food was well priced and delicious!

Tuesday: adventures galore. We had planned to visit La Isla de Plata, aka the poor man’s Galapagos—this island is a part of the Machililla National Park. One of my favorite parts about this tour package was the discounted price for our admission due to our foreign residency here in Ecuador. I am so glad I already have this resident ID...and I look forward to reaping the benefits from it on future adventures too. For this trip, it meant paying $5 instead of $20 for park admission.

On our tour were a group of traveling Brits whom we’d met at the hostel, a few other couples, and (lo and behold) a group of people we knew from Mindo! So funny! Our friend/guide Lady had accompanied some of the German volunteers placed in Mindo for a beach excursion during their vacation. What a riot! And so much fun to have them there and catch up with them again, even though it’s only been a few weeks since we’d seen them.

Okay, back to the tour. We took a relatively small boat out the 1.5 hours to the island with out whole group, 2 guides, and crew of the boat. On the way we came upon a pair of humpback whales and traveled with them for a while. Whale season in this region is late June to early October. The pregnant whales that arrive in June birth their calves and the rest of the migrants come to find partners. So late in the season, we were lucky to see this pair, a male and female.

Once on the island, our bird watching began. We hiked around half of the island spotting different types of birds: blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies, frigate birds and some others whose names I have forgotten. The most plentiful were the blue-footed boobies. And by plentiful, I mean they were EVERYWHERE. They’d often set up camp, nest and all, in the middle of the hiking path and we’d have to bushwhack around so as not to upset them/get bitten. These birds are quite territorial.

Each year they chose a new mate, lay 2 to 3 eggs, and raise one chick. It’s survival of the fittest. The strongest chick will push the others out of the nest, and once out of the safety ring of excrement the parents made, they will no longer care for the babes. The male and female blue-footed boobies are nearly identical visually, only the size of the pupils differs: females having larger pupils than males. However their calls are distinct. The females have a course, low almost quacking sound while the males have a smooth, high whistling sound.

We didn’t see many blue-footed babies because they had a high level of rain on the island last winter and the ground was not dry enough for this breed to conceive and raise young. However the masked boobies were far more successful, living on the windy side of the island. We saw babies of many ages, from a month or more old to a day old, broken eggshell still in view, chick without any feathers.

The older chicks were fluffy white—looked wicked soft. The blue-footed booby eggs were whitish-blue while the masked booby eggs were speckled brown. The parents were very protective of their eggs and nests (for the most part) and especially of their babies. I say for the most part because there was a time when we came quickly around the corner of the path and stumbled upon a nest, mother and two eggs. The mother was so surprised by our arrival that she flew away. Very uncharacteristic.

We saw only a couple red-footed boobies; this breed has been in trouble in the past couple of years but now on this island there are 18 pairs. A good comeback so far. The frigates were everywhere in the air and trees once we hit the cliffs leading to the sea. They prefer to stay on the cliffs.

As for other nature, there were plenty of speedy lizards, a stick bug, and some moths that I saw. Our hike around this trail took about 3 hours and it was HOT by the end. Though still overcast, it was very bright and I got a bit of color.

The surroundings on the island were rather bleak. This is dry season (one of the 2 seasons in Ecuador--can you guess what the other is?) so there is not much vegetation. However, there were many barren trees, cacti and plentiful loofah plants. Though the loofah pods look dead, once you break off the encasement around them, inside is the lovely exfoliating sponge plant we all know and love. Though slightly different from the loofah's my family used to grow, I was amazed by this plant. The loofah's merely act as fertilizer for the plants in the area, since this is a natural reserve and nothing may leave the park. Pretty neat.

Once back on the boat, we ate a quick lunch and headed over to a cove to do some snorkeling and swimming. There were some really cool fish there, and the water was beautiful too. And a wonderful temperature to help us cool off after the hot hike. I don’t know much about fish, so can’t identify anything I saw, but others mentioned rainbow fish and barracudas. I liked the small bright blue ones that swam in schools all around me.

The ride back in the boat was much smoother than the way to the island, but I still prefer to go in slightly bigger boats. Too rocky for my liking. Especially on the way there when the captain would cut the engine so we could view the whales. That was not so nice to my tummy, but I survived, all my breakfast intact.

We arrived back in Puerto Lopez around dinner time, said goodbye to our Mindo friends who were leaving that night, cleaned up and headed out for drinks and dinner with our new English friends. Unfortunately, by the time we all were ready to head out, it was quite late and restaurants in Puerto Lopez close earlier than I’m used to. So we had to try a few out before heading back to Mandala to order quickly before they closed the kitchen. Another delicious meal and tons of stories told amongst our new friends.

Wednesday: more Machalilla Park. All around Puerto Lopez, we walked but were always passed by these motorcycle rickshaw type taxis offering to take us where we needed to go. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning that we finally got in. My goodness….what a bumpy ride! A few times I hit my head on the ceiling, got dust in the eyes, and nearly slid out of the open sides of the rickshaw. All in good fun. Phil, Laura and I took this taxi to the main Machililla National Park to visit Los Frailes, supposedly the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. This crescent shaped beach certainly held up to this superlative. GORGEOUS! When we got there it was almost sunny, and nice and warm. We relaxed, read, went for walks and explored. For the most part, we were the only ones on the beach, with others wandering past at times, but not staying long. Unfortunately, at some point, the clouds came to cover the sun thicker, and the wind picked up. Still a nice beach day, but definitely not the best for swimming or sunbathing. Oh well. I got some more reading done and found some cool shells and rocks when Laura and I explored the far end of the beach; Phil opted for the closer end with the cave. Also cool.

When our taxi driver arrived to pick us up at the aforementioned time, we headed back to our hostel to shower, change and be on our way. It was really nice that we could hang out at the hostel and use their showers since we’d already checked out that morning, and received all the info we needed to make our excursion for the day possible. Each morning, Consuela fixed our breakfasts and would tell us everything we needed to know and gave tips as to what we should see while here. I was especially glad for her tip that you hire a taxi to take you to the park, set up a time for him to return, and don’t pay him anything until he brings you back to Puerto Lopez—just to make sure he comes back for you. Smart lady.

We wandered the streets a bit, had an early dinner (which also served as our lunch), picked up some snacks for the road and were on our way on another overnight bus back to Quito. This time it took only a bit over 11 hours. Not bad, especially considering all the stops we made to pick up people from other bus terminals along the way. The one annoying thing was that the tickets were very disorganized for the return trip. We were told to sit wherever, but then when given our ticket receipt, were not only assigned to completely different seats, but also totally separate from one another. Weird. And then when we arrived at Porto Viejo (I think) our bus filled up completely but there were multiple double bookings of seats. Therefore, we wouldn’t move out of out incorrect seats because our assigned seats were already full. Eventually the ticket lady couldn’t deal with the fuss and drama and just told everyone to take whatever seat available. Much better.

Unfortunately, I was just getting to sleep right before this drama incurred and was unable to get back to sleep for the remainder of the bus ride. So I got maybe an hour’s sleep, and quite a fright when Laura (who sat next to me) had a nightmare about being pick-pocketed and assigned me the role as the thief, unbeknownst to this fact beforehand. All of a sudden I had her fist in my face, and grabbing at purse strap—luckily she awoke immediately and we both laughed about the situation heartily. Good reaction time. Hopefully Laura will be able to use these speed skills in the future if she has too…. none of us look forward to any sort of petty theft, but it happens.

Anyhow, I think this is all for my days on the coast. Now I have a little relaxation time in Quito to continue settling into my new abode and then tomorrow night our whole group is off to Baños for another adventure trip. Woot.

permalink written by  Theresa on October 2, 2008 from Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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