We spent a long time debating whether we could afford to visit the Galapagos when we travelled through Ecuador. We had friends giving us top budget tips, brilliant advertisement campaigns throwing up adorable photos of sea lions and every other backpacker we met returning from the island paradise telling us it was the best thing they'd ever done.
However, after looking at the costs every which way, we decided that we just couldn't justify it and that we'd rather put the money towards a full month of budget travel elsewhere in South America. The Galapagos would have to wait for another time, a time when we could do it right, when we would no longer balk at $130 snorkel trips and be able to afford to eat something other than instant noodles for a week.
A little while after this decision was made, we heard about Isla de la Plata (Silver Island). A small island not far from Montañita where we could still enjoy incredible snorkelling and spot the most sought after blue-footed boobie; we were sold! Where better for us poor travellers than the 'poor man's Galapagos? So, on a sweltering hot day in May, we joined Go Montañita on their day tour.
ACROSS THE WAVES
After snoozing our way through the hour bus ride to Puerto Lopez from Montañita, we met up with our group and guides for the day. Highlighting just how popular Ecuador is becoming with international travellers, we're joined by Germans, Americans, French and Swedish. A quick straw poll amongst us showed that we were all here because the bank balance wouldn't stretch quite as far as the Galapagos.
The sea is calm and shimmers as we charter our way for 90 minutes. As this trip is falling towards the end of our time on the coast, we bagsy the seats at the back so we can catch some rays and enjoy the oceans views unencumbered. Some snacks of banana bread and bananas (potassium is clearly an essential dietary component for this hike) are handed out along with a much needed bottle of water.
As we edge closer to dock, it becomes abundantly clear that spotting some birdlife is not going to be difficult. Squawking overhead and squatting in gangs along the cliffs are thousands of birds. Like the Bloods and the Crypts in New York, each has a clear signifier of their tribe and there is no mixing. The inflated red balloon of horny male frigates circling most clearly stands out, whilst in the cliffs one can just spot streaks of bright blue feet.
We clamber off the boat to dip our ankles in the ocean and walk up to the beach. There, we're lucky enough to see a group of biologists weighing, measuring and monitoring five giant turtles. We're in awe (these are the first wild turtles we've seen on the trip).
After a sweaty walk up to a lookout point, we were split into groups based on our wildlife spotting preferences - those more partial to an up close boobie encounter headed to the cliffs, whilst those keener on the magnificent frigate (their ACTUAL name) made their way to the headland.
We were a little bit surprised at having to make this choice but due to time constraints, limitations on foot traffic and closures of some trails for conservation purposes, we understand the requirement for all tours, not just Go Montañita's, to split up and prioritise what birdlife they want to see. However, it may lead to disappointment for some.
A minute after our group of ten branches off, we find our first blue-footed boobie hanging out in the bushes; we both promptly burst out laughing. You see, we'd spent a number of nights googling images of them and, frankly, thought they looked both ridiculous and hiliarious.
Up close and personal, both those characteristics are enhanced ten-fold.
This guy looks like a confused duck got drunk, had sex with a seagull and then dipped their offspring's feet in luminous blue paint. However, he's extremely curious and, for a wild bird on a rock in the middle of the ocean, appears quite tame. Of course, we're not able to touch him but you can get pretty close - he really doesn't seem to mind.
As all ten of our group are going crazy with the camera to capture the moment of meeting their first ever boobie, our guide assures us that, similar to a beach full of German holiday-makers, we'll see plenty more boobies if we just walk a little further.
And the man was not wrong. It turns out that on Isla de la Plata, you can't walk more than 20 feet without finding a bachelor boobie or a loving couple hanging out together. They have a strange throaty call, sort of like a misfiring foghorn, which sometimes greets us or warns us to back off.
As we continue to make our way down to the jaw-droppingly pretty cliffs, their numbers increase. Little colonies nestled away, parties dive-bombing their way into the sea and a few clusters mooching on foot right beside you. We came to Isla de la Plata in search of the blue-foot boobie and definitely got our fix!
POOP OR PIRATES?
So how did Isla de la Plata get its name? Well, according to our guide, it's to do with either pirate treasure or bird shit.
For many, the name stems from legends about the British pirate/trader and all around cad Sir Francis Drake having used the island to hide his plundered silver. Yet, despite several historical sources disputing this, and no treasure having been recovered, the myth remains intact and propagated every year to tourists.
The alternative explanation, and the one which we prefer, is that the island sometimes lights up a beautiful silver colour under the night sky. The reason? Bird shit. And lots of it.
After a couple of hours under the baking sun and no shade, our groups reunited and we headed back to the boat. A much-needed dip in the water was next on the menu!
We've done a lot of snorkelling on this trip - some good, some disappointing and some that made Emily want to jump back in the boat immediately (they could have warned us there was a shark a couple of metres away!).
There may not have been sharks, but in the clear waters that lap at Isla de la Plata we still found plenty to amaze us. Large schools of small silver fish surrounded us seemingly undeterred by our presence as giant purple fish drifted below our floating bodies. Whilst the coral has long since lots its colour the sea life provide a vibrant backdrop to those snorkelling above. It was excellent.
So, was a trip to the Isla de la Plata worth it? Absolutely. If you're a budget backpacker in Ecuador still hoping to have a taste of the country's incredible array of bird and wildlife, then this is a great affordable alternative. There may not be any sea-lions but, between boobies, tropical fish and turtle sightings, you'll leave more than satisfied.
The team supplied by Go Montañita really looked after our group on the day. The transport provided (both the boat and bus) was of a high standard and on-time and the guides informative and friendly - in both Spanish and English.
The lunch and snacks provided, whilst basic, were perfectly adequate and fresh and provided the requisite energy for a day of exercise. Each person is given two small sandwiches, a couple of pieces of fruit and a slice of banana bread. They also provide a small bottle of water for the hike, which is a nice touch. We definitely recommend you bring a couple of litres of your own however and lots of suncream.
The snorkelling gear (mask and snorkel) were of a really good standard, unlike a number of trips we have been on.
The tour with Go Montañita costs $50 per person including transport, food and drinks and snorkelling gear, and lasts approximately seven hours (from leaving Montañita at 9 a.m. and returning around 4 p.m.)
They are a relatively new company run by an energetic and enthusiastic American-Peruvian couple and organise various tours, dives and activities around the area. For further information on their services or to contact them, check out the links below: