La Isla de la Plata


Ayampe, at low tide. Walking along a seemingly endless strip of beach like this, with the one you love, where the sea rolls into the rolling hills, it’s hard to decide when it’s time to turn back. Here was the last stop of our weeks along Ecuador’s central coast, a little wooden shack town like so many others.

Lying along an exposed stretch of coastline, the ocean tumbles into the beach here too hard for a port to have emerged from this little patch of green amongst the surrounding drylands. And unlike the party town and gringo haven of Montañita to the south, the surf’s not big enough to draw many people with their boards, although we did see a couple of people giving it a try one afternoon.

Once again, though, I’ve started at the end of the story. Before we got off a bus at what appeared to be a stretch of road like any other, and I walked down the dirt road into Ayampe for the first time, we had spent a few more days in Puerto Lopez after our trip up to Agua Blanca. Or perhaps it’s better to say that we spent our nights there, as the days there were dedicated to exploring as much of Machalilla National Park as we could.

El Parque
Nacional Machalilla is divided into three primary sections, both politically and geographically. The village, ruins and surrounds of Agua Blanca, which made up the first area of the park we explored, lie further inland, along the fringe of the divide between low dryland scrub forest and higher up, cloud forest.

The second principal area of the park, as you can see, is made up of the coast itself, alternating repeatedly as you go between beaches and cliffsides covered in palo santo, until the view disappears into the clouds.

Those clouds, representative of the weather constantly carried inland from a cold Pacific current, help keep Ecuador’s temperature perennially mild even here along the coast. Just as the northern Pacific renders the US west coast balmy at times of year that the rest of the country is buried in snow, the central Pacific cools much of what would otherwise be constantly sweltering lowlands.

Here we spent a day, wandering the trails that led us in and out of beaches, dry aromatic forests and high up overlooks, before hopping into one of many motorcycle-driven taxis back into Puerto Lopez:

Another night along the town’s beachline malecón and the next day had us on the way to the last principal section of Machalilla’s diverse spread of ecosystems tucked into one of Ecuador’s many corners: la isla de la plata, which lies two hours by boat from Puerto Lopez. And, as fate would have it, we embarked onto Pacific waters that day during the height of humpback whale season.

It turns out that humpback whales, spending the bulk of their days feeding in polar waters, come down to the tropics to breed and bear their young. By the time we got there, these whales were already rearing their calves, born at around 2 tons. Despite their enormous birth size they still looked small next to their 40 ton mothers, who swam and occasionally breached the surface alongside them, seemingly unperturbed by the flocks of tourists in boats doggedly pursuing them with their cameras ready (myself included).

We chased the whales for an hour or so, taking turns with the rest of the day’s tripulation, climbing onto the roof of our small speedboat. At that height on our little vessel every pitch was exaggerated and threatened to knock you off your feet, or hands and knees, but we were willing to put up with that to get a better look and with luck, a better snapshot of whatever part of those massive shapes might poke out from the depths. Like any good fisherman, I’ll say that I saw plenty more than I managed to catch, on film. For those of you absorbing all of this vicariously as you are, this tail will have to do.

Soon we were nearing the desert isla de la plata, known casually as the poor man’s Galapagos for its similar (but smaller) slice of fauna and much more accessible location from the mainland. In some ways it might be said that here the wildlife is under less threat from human pressure despite its vicinity to the coast, as here there are no permanent settlements. While the burgeoning Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos’ main tourist reception area, swells to a population of over 10,000, the only structures to be found here are a ranger’s station near the wet landing area and a few lean-tos for shade along the trails. Perhaps part of its relative isolation is due to its shape:

A jagged rock poking out from the sea, this island harbors no calm beach to welcome the visitors who wade to the shore. Once you’re on land, however, there are few physical barriers presented by the local flora, as la isla de la plata is a true desert island and what plant life there is is stout and sparse. Nonetheless, the relative lack of predation here has given sanctuary to those same birds that have made their home on Ecuador’s more famous archipelago. Most notably, the blue-footed booby.

It had been a year since last I’d seen this mating dance, but once again I bore witness to the long, ceremonial courtship punctuated by the male boasting his greatest attributes. Which consists of some ritual waddling to feature those big, blue feet, intermittent wing stretching, followed by hollow whistling, as well as the male picking up twigs in his beak, presumably to demonstrate what a good nest he’ll build for all those eggs she’ll soon be laying. As was also evident in the Galapagos, here these birds pay no mind at all to the scores of babbling onlookers crashing their party. Indeed, this pair was photographed right next to the trail, worn well into the sand by the many tourists that have crossed it, and still the birds go on.

Here were also to be seen other, less famous sorts of boobies. The masked booby for example, so called for the black face it wears in contrast with its otherwise white feathers, is the biggest of the boobies. The red-footed, smallest of all boobies, is notable for its more conservative custom of nesting in trees, as opposed to the brazen nesting on open ground practiced by the other varieties, where any predator would have easy pickings.

Our tour guide told us all this in Spanish. Other than Nancy and I, though, our group consisted of Europeans and Asians who spoke English in addition to their own languages, but no Spanish. The guide nominated me as the unofficial translator as a result of these circumstances, which I was happy to do despite the lack of compensation. I was arguably able to absorb more of the information than I would have otherwise, having to think about it enough to render it into another language. Also, I suppose I’d heard it all before when I visited North Seymour the year prior. It also filled my head with the notion of someday returning to Puerto Lopez during whale watching season, getting a part time gig on a boat doing interpretation and otherwise digging on the beach lifestyle for a few months. Doesn’t sound too bad, maybe it will even happen someday.

So, while we were given all this information about red-footed and masked boobies, we were also lured by the temptation of more humpbacks, and in the end our group opted not to follow the trail to these other birds but to get back on the boat, do a few minutes of snorkling, and then head back out into open waters for a chance to get another look at the whales.

After some time swimming with the tropical fish in the shallows around the island, we sighted up a few more whales on the way home. That night we took our dinner in the preferred way when we’re on vacation, on a streetside patio with a deck of cards and a cribbage board. That’s the kind of set up that can leave you for hours to take in the environment. Our meal was punctuated by a visit from a couple from Singapore who accompanied us on the whalewatching trip, and after awhile we learned they were staying at our hotel as well. The next morning we shared breakfast with them, after which we said our goodbyes to them and to Puerto Lopez.

We headed back up to the dusty main strip of the town and got on the first bus heading south. The road stayed close to the coastline for several kilometers, weaving along a few other small villages before it veered out of sight of the ocean. As will often happen on road trips of even short distances in Ecuador, the landscape began shifting noticeably from dry to lush. It wasn’t long after this little change in climate that we were deposited alongside the road, at the intersection with the little dirt road into the woods that led to Ayampe.

So it is that we’ve ended back up where our story started, in this little town by the sea. There’s an ecolodge situated on the outskirts of the town, right along the beach. It had quaint straw huts with well-appointed interiors and prices rivaling the more tourist-oriented accomodations back in Cuenca. It also had a restaurant in the main hall with a nice menu, and while we took them up on a few meals during our stay, when it came to sleeping we chose Cuatro Estrellas, a more modest set of cabins carrying a $5 a night price tag and a shower like a garden hose. But while the bathroom was less than ideal, our cabin itself was quite nice, and for that fee we had all two stories of it to ourselves, complete with a porch and balcony, each with their own hammocks. Cuatro, the owner and namesake of the lodging, was napping in the downstairs hammock when we arrived. He awoke as we walked up to him, and flashed us a grin which belied his name: four gold teeth, shining in a row. He obligingly gave up the hammock and left us be, after we had hammered out the details of our stay, and once we had gotten ourselves settled in, we went for one of many walks around the village and the sea.

Ayampe was settled along the banks of a stream that must have once flowed unobstructed across the beach and into the ocean, but as often seems to be the case in beach towns like these, at some point the locals engineered a sandy dam that created a freshwater wetlands suitable for their needs as a community. And as for our needs, it served as a fine place for skipping stones.

It was on these walks that the reality of the imminent close of our extended vacation began to reveal itself, and a dull melancholy settled into me one night as I sat with Nancy on the sand, watching the evening tide. Here the ocean had been lapping the beach of Ayampe for countless days and nights, always, through the histories of all the people and cultures and civilizations unfolded near and far from this little place and then, with time, faded away. This particular night, we were there to see its centuries of motion all represented there, and the next night, we’d be back in our own bed, high up in the sierra. What is it about the last moments of a carefree vacation that can project one into time in such a way, backwards and forwards? That night in Ayampe a hundred memories flooded my mind, from all corners of my experiences, and I shared a few of them with Nancy before they receded once again into the darker depths of my mind, not to be thought of again, probably, until now. She listened, and witnessed the sort of mood that was washing over me, and after some time like that we walked in our bare feet back towards the town.

Indeed, the next night we were back home, clearing out all the funky things we’d left in the fridge and settling into our bed, many hours, hundreds of kilometers and several bus rides away from that little beach which we chose for the last days of our trip. After we had washed the last of the salt from our bodies and we drifted into the deep, long sleep that only your own bed will grant you after weeks on the road, I was there again for a moment, on the edge of the sea, in Ayampe.

Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
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