A Whale of a Good Time (…in search of Humpback Whales along Ecuador’s coast)

From Wikipedia:  “The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale. One of the larger rorqual species, adults range in length from 12–16 m (39–52 ft) and weigh around 25–30 metric tons (28–33 short tons). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. It is known for breaching and other distinctive surface behaviors, making it popular with whale watchers. Males produce a complex song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating.

Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 km (16,000 mi) each year. They feed in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth, fasting and living off their fat reserves. Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net technique.

Like other large whales, the humpback was a target for the whaling industry. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, its population fell by an estimated 90% before a 1966 moratorium. While stocks have partially recovered to some 80,000 animals worldwide, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships and noise pollution continue to impact the species.”

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In 2005, JET and I visited Boston for the marathon, which she was participating in that Patriot’s Day.  We added a few days for sightseeing, and went on a whale watching excursion on a large boat similar to this:

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(courtesy of  Boston Harbor Cruises)

We were crammed on the boat with perhaps 100 other tourists hoping for a glimpse of a humpback whale.  Tours like this one leave every few hours on most days, and cost $50 or more per adult.  We did see whales during the tour, although mostly of their backs, and from quite a distance…let’s just say that our whale watching appetite was not satisfied.

Fast forward to 2010.  We visited Bahia de Caraquez on the coast of Ecuador for 10 days.  While there, we inquired about whale watching possibilities in Ecuador.  “Oh, not here…” we were told.  “…you must visit Puerto Lopez down the coast…that’s where to see las ballenas…”

When we got home, we immediately started to research Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village  with about 20,000 inhabitants, set in an arched bay on the Pacific coast in the Ecuadorian Manabí Province. Puerto Lopéz is the Machalilla National Park headquarters. The main industries include fishing and ecotourism, including humpback whale watching.

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In June each year, younger male humpbacks begin to arrive in the warm waters off of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, after a 7,500 mile migration from Antarctic waters, where they spend six months of each year feeding.  The next group are the adult males, followed by the females in mid July, many nearing the end of their gestation and soon to give birth.  These gentle giants remain here until October, where they engage in mating behavior and give birth to their calves.  There are so many in these waters that it is not uncommon to see them from shore.

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The Telegraph posted a recent article stating that whale watching tours can be arranged in no fewer than 119 countries around the world.  Adventure seekers from all over descend on this sleepy town to see “las ballenas” because Puerto Lopez is arguably the most cost effective destination for some intimate, incredible whale watching.  What follows is a primer for humpback whale watching in Puerto Lopez, including a “soup to nuts” cost estimate and plenty of photos and videos taken by me and JET in July & August 2018.

A note regarding money and costs: Ecuador has been on the US dollar since around 2000.  This is great if you are from the US.  First, there are no foreign currency fluctuations, and second, your US dollars have strong purchasing power in Ecuador.  Be advised, however, that credit cards are seldom used, especially away from larger cities.  This is due to the hefty surcharges added by businesses, as much as 10%.  Cash is king in Ecuador, and make sure you have a lot of small bills so you don’t have to receive change back.  Additionally, make sure that your paper money is fairly new, and has no tears or missing pieces.  For our recent 3 week stay, we brought about $2,400 in cash for spending money, including $500 in small bills ($10’s, $5’s and $1’s), and used nearly all of it.  The only costs paid for with a credit card were the whale watching trips that will be discussed later.

Our budget and (actual) for two people for 21 days was $2,456, broken down as follows:

Meals, including alcohol and tips (Ecuadorian beer is quite good)  $760 ($721)

Lodging at Hosteria Itapoa, 20 nights with free late check out on last day:  $800 ($800)

Tips for whale tours and Itapoa team:  $80.00 ($274)

Taxi from/to GYE:  $200.00 ($210)

Miscellaneous spending for souvenirs, water, etc:  $616.00  ($65)

Total land cost excluding whale tours:  $2,456 ($2,070).  The average actual per day land cost was less than $100 for two of us, and we came home with $384 in cash.   This was for 3 weeks, and we never felt like we were pinching pennies.

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Getting There

Most people fly into either Quito (UIO, 3.5 hour flight from Miami) or Guayaquil (GYE, 4 hour flight from Miami).  In the US, Miami is a great hub for South/Central America travel, with multiple nonstop options to UIO or GYE.  During whale season, nonstop economy and business class fares to either UIO or GYE are currently around $600 and $1,200, respectively.  The closest airports to Puerto Lopez are in Manta (2.5 hours by taxi) and Guayaquil (3.5 hours by taxi).  Manta airport (MEC) can be reached from Quito direct via a 40 minute flight and costs around $80 for a one way fare.  Most of the flights from GYE to Manta connect through UIO, making this option impractical.

If flying into Quito, an overnight stay near UIO may be required, since there are limited flights to and from Manta each day, and connection times make it hard for same day travel to Manta.  A private taxi can be arranged from UIO to Puerto Lopez.  The trip will take about 9 hours and cost $200 or more one way.  Having taken that route once, we do not recommend it unless you just want an adventure.  From Manta to Puerto Lopez, a private taxi will cost about $50.

Flying into Guayaquil is a better choice.  Instead of either a 9 hour taxi from UIO or an overnight stay in Quito, a short flight the next day to Manta, and finally a taxi to Puerto Lopez, you can take a taxi immediately from GYE to Puerto Lopez for about $100.  It is a 3.5 hour trip, and a taxi can be arranged at any time of the day or night.  On one visit, our taxi driver met our flight arriving GYE  at 2AM, and we made it to Puerto Lopez for an early breakfast!!!

Taxis from either Manta or Guayaquil can be arranged by the hotel or hosteria you will be staying at.  Just make sure that you are clear with the hotel how many people and pieces of luggage will be involved.  Many of the vehicles in Ecuador are quite small.

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Where to Stay

Quito Airport (UIO)

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If you fly into Quito, chances are that you will need to overnight in Quito before taking a short flight to Manta the next day.  The new airport is quite a distance from the city, which involves a much higher taxi fare and as long as 90 minutes each way, depending on traffic.  A better option is to stay at Quito Airport Suites, an inexpensive hotel in Tababela, a small town 10 minutes from the airport.  Taxi fare one way is $8 from airport to the hotel and $5 from the hotel to the airport.  These prices are per group, not per person. The rooms are comfortable and affordable, less than $40 per night.  They also offer simple meals for a reasonable price.

Puerto Lopez

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In the past 10 years, the number of hostels, hotels, airbnb’s and apartments in Puerto Lopez has increased dramatically.  What you will find is a dizzying array of choices, from $10 per night bed space in a dorm style room and shared bath to an entire home with ocean views for around $100 per night, and many choices in between.  Many include a simple breakfast in the price, and usually charge per person rates.

Our choice for each of our many visits to Puerto Lopez has been Hosteria Itapoa, a sublime oasis owned and operated by the Nieto family.  Here you will find a number of private cabañas with en suite baths, ceiling fans, hammocks and some even have air conditioning.  The price is $40 per night for two people, including breakfast each day (eggs, baguettes, fresh fruit, fresh juice and coffee), served in an open air cabaña overlooking the new malecon and ocean.  Dorm rooms with shared baths are less.  The grounds are beautiful and secure.  WIFI is available at no extra cost, but don’t expect 5G speeds.  Maria Nieto will take good care of you during your visit, and can help arrange a number of activities, including tours and taxi service to/from airports or other destinations.  Laundry service is available for $2 per kg.  They only accept cash.

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(Pelucon and Africa, two of the resident dogs…our cabaña can be seen on the left)

Eating

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(Aloha Cafe veggie burgers)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Ecuador is very inexpensive.  Your dollar goes a long way here.  The farther away you get from Quito, Guayaquil or Cuenca, the cheaper it is.  Puerto Lopez is loaded with restaurants of all kinds.  Now, even vegetarians are being shown some love at many places.  There are even a couple places offering vegan fare.  I could go on for an hour about all of the decent restaurants, but the best thing to do is just walk around.  Most restaurants have someone standing outside with menus to look at.  Check out Tripadvisor’s reviews….and don’t be afraid to try the more local establishments…they are usually really good and cheap.

Breakfast is included in the nightly rate at many hotels and hostels.  Don’t expect a Denny’s Grand Slam, though.  You will get a nice serving of incredibly fresh fruit, including naturally ripened bananas instead of the artificially ripened and tasteless ones in the States.  Also, a glass of fresh squeezed fruit juice that can change daily, scrambled or fried eggs, a couple of flaky baguettes and perhaps some coffee. (Note:  if you are a coffee hound, do some research for hostels with good coffee – hard to come by in Ecuador.  Otherwise , your coffee may be a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe).

If you want something different for breakfast, there are several places offering crepes, pancakes and traditional “Manabita” breakfast made from eggs, cheese and plantains….I really liked it, JET not so much…

Breakfast Recommendations:

Cafe Dinoflagelado, crepes, juice and smoothies, north end of the Malecon, good coffee

Aloha Cafe for pancakes, good coffee, american breakfast…try the Manabita!!!

Lunch and Dinner are available at many more restaurants in Puerto Lopez, as well as at the fish and produce markets.  Meals at either of those venues are even cheaper.  There are also a number of street food carts along the malecon with inexpensive food.  The risk taken when eating food from either market or street vendors is that your digestive system might not fair well if the sanitary preparations were lacking.  It takes a while to adjust to local bacteria, and you might pay for your adventurous gastronomy.  Best to stick with restaurants.

Fish is available everywhere, some of the freshest you will ever have.  There are all kinds of fish, and it is cooked in many different ways, from ceviche, to fried to “la plancha” or broiled.  Other seafood is also readily available, from shrimp to calamari to lobster to octopus.  A seafood dinner at most restaurants consists of a nice portion of your chosen seafood, a small salad, a side of rice and either patacones (fried green plantains) or papas (french fries).  The cost will be around $6 – $7, depending on the restaurant.   Our favorite “Ecuadorian” restaurant is Spondylus, which has a large menu, cheap prices and a good vegetarian selection, such as the splendid vegetarian rice dish below.

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Ceviche is its own little world.  Ecuadorians love ceviche prepared with many different seafoods, but fish is probably the most popular choice.  Ceviche Pescado (fish) costs  $4 – $6, depending on the restaurant, and includes a bowl of ceviche, several fresh garnishes to mix in (tomato, cilantro, peppers, onions, etc) and a portion of patacones or papas.  You can also order a portion of rice to mix in with it.  An interesting note about ceviche is that Ecuadorians rarely eat it for dinner, mainly breakfast and also lunch.  Not to worry, though…I happily ate ceviche for many dinners there.

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(Ceviche pescado at Spondylus, with a side of rice and patacones)

There are many other alternatives to fish in Puerto Lopez.  Excellent pizza can be found at several places for a reasonable price.  Our favorite is Porto del Forno, located very close to Hosteria Itapoa.  They are only open for dinner a few hours each night.  The crust is thin and light, the toppings fresh and not overloaded.  An individual size pizza runs from $9 – $12, depending on the ingredients.  This is expensive by Puerto Lopez standards, but it is delicious, and the ambience is relaxed and intimate, a nice change from the noisy part of the malecon further south. Note:  this restaurant will move several blocks north in September 2018, but will definitely still be worth trying.

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(pizza vegetariana at Forno del Porto)

Casa Vecchia is a long standing Italian restaurant in Puerto Lopez that we have visited many times over the years.  Everything is made from scratch, the atmosphere is sublime, and the hosts and service are marvelous.  It is one of the most expensive meals you will eat while visiting Puerto Lopez, but quite reasonable for the quality by U.S. standards.  Go ahead…have a “date night” and spend a couple hours eating superb pasta or pizza and listening to blues…

(Casa Vecchia, fettunta garlic bread, pizza vegetariana, fettucine al pesto)

For a Colombian gastronomic delight, be sure to check out Patacon Pisa’o, another long standing restaurant located on the plaza just off the malecon.  The star of the show here is the patacon, made from plantains, in several different ways.  The owners are friendly and speak very good English, the food is excellent and the portions are huge.  Dinner here with a shared bottle of beer will set you back $20 – $25 with tip, and you will not leave hungry.

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(Patacon Pisa’o, vegetarian skewers with salad & papas, beans with cheese and hoga’o sauce, papas and a cerveza)

In summary, food is quite cheap in Puerto Lopez.  We averaged $34 a day for meals, including drinks and tips, for our 21 day stay.  That average is actually high, because we ate at the pricier Forno del Porto and Patacon Pisa’o three times each and Casa Vecchia once.  If you stick with the more typical restaurants, the average will drop considerably.

And now, about those Whales…

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Puerto Lopez offers a variety of different things to do during your visit.  It is the gateway to Machalilla National Park.  There are horseback amd hiking tours into the jungle to see birds and monkeys, Agua Blanca is an interesting, centuries old village with significant historical aspects, and from November to May, the coast of Ecuador in general, and Puerto Lopez in particular, is a beachgoer’s dream, with ample sun, wide beaches such as Los Frailes, as well as great surfing.  The countryside is green as an emerald.

That being said, from June to mid-October each year, humpback whale watching is king.  That is because thousands of these exquisite animals inhabit the relatively shallow waters off of Puerto Lopez.  Walk down the malecon any day during this period, and you will surely be asked by several people if you want to see “las ballenas”.  In fact, there are dozens of tour operators in Puerto Lopez offering whale watching trips, and it can be a daunting decision to pick which one and what type of trip.

There are two types of whale watching trips available.  The least expensive is a three hour +/- trips, with mostly morning and some afternoon departures.  These boats are usually around 38 feet and can have as many as 20 tourists sandwiched on board.  The cost is $25 per person, and includes whale watching, snorkeling and spotting blue footed boobies at Salango Ialand and a drink and snack.  On these tours, the actual time spent watching whales is perhaps an hour on most days.  This is because the whales are not readily present until the boat gets away from shore, perhaps 15 – 20 minutes or so.  Another hour is allocated to getting to the snorkeling sight, setting up and breaking down the snorkels.  We went on many of these trips early in our visits to Puerto Lopez, and they were fun and exhilarating – at least until we got bored seeing dorsal fins and tails, but rarely any breaching.  If you have never gone whale watching before, or if you don’t care about getting money shot photos of breaches, these short tours deliver a lot for low cost.  If you want this type of encounter…

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Male humpback breaching close to Isla de la Plata

….you will most likely want to take the other type of whale watching tour available, a full day visit to Isla de la Plata, the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” about 25 miles off shore from Puerto Lopez.  $46 will buy you an 8+ hour, full day boat ride to and from Isla de la Plata, and includes (usually, but depending on conditions) morning and afternoon whale watching, a pre-hike snack while you stop and see dozens of Green Pacific Sea Turtles once at the island, two to three hours of hiking on the island, with several trails, close encounters with Blue Footed Boobies and other birds, lunch, excellent snorkeling and another snack.  It is quite simply a bargain…

JET and I have gone out with many different tour operators over the years.  Some were quite good, some not so much.  The best of all of them, hands down, is Palo Santo Travel.  I will post the text from JET’s Tripadvisor review of Palo Santo, because I certainly can’t improve on her splendid words…

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“Every year from June through September humpback whales congregate off the waters of Puerto Lopez to mate and give birth. There are a couple dozen tour companies offering either ½ or full day trips to see these majestic creatures. But for the best whale experience there is only one option: Palo Santo Travel. The owner, Cristina Castro, is a marine biologist who has partnered with the Pacific Whale Foundation. She has assembled the best team: best captain, best sailor, best guides, and (more often than not) a marine biologist along for the ride — primarily to observe & document the activity but also available to answer questions and interpret what you are seeing. They also have an underwater listening device for whale songs. (They don’t always bring it so be sure to check beforehand)

Although everyone on the Palo Santo team has years of experience, they are incredibly passionate about the whales and will be as excited as you when one suddenly surfaces beside the boat. Never once have we seen them exploit the whales in any way. The whales always come first.

Capt Jaime has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting active whales and will put you on that adult breaching multiple times, the momma with calf, or a pod swimming with dolphins. And he will never scrimp on time: if you’re on good activity he stays – even if it means getting to Isla de la Plata later than the other boats or getting back to Puerto Lopez long after everyone else. He also knows how to keep the boat steady for photographers and follow along perfectly as the whales travel through the water. He will even move the boat around the whales if the light is not ideal.

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The hike on Isla is always fun. Guides Silvano and Galo know it well and even after multiple visits we still learned something new every day. They are excellent guides who also diligently guard the safety and well-being of the many beautiful birds.

Everything about this company is top-notch and professional, from Laritza who manages the office to Stalin the sailor always available to lend a hand while also keeping the engines running. The full day tours include whale watching to/from Isla de la Plata, hiking on the island, snorkeling near the island, turtle watching, snacks, and lunch. The $46 price is by far the best bang for your buck.

In 2018 Cristina also added “Scientifico” tours which include another 2-3 hours of whale watching during the island hike. For that duration it’s basically a private tour and increases your chances of seeing whale activity. The $80 price for this tour is incredibly reasonable and if you are looking for that perfect shot it is highly recommended.

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Muchas Gracias mis amigos. Hasta Pronto!”

Well, that about sums it up…Puerto Lopez is a magical place all year, but especially when the Humpback Whales visit each June – October.  I will leave you with some more of our favorite images from our trip.  Enjoy!

Whale Images

Whale Videos

Isla de La Plata Images

Isla de la Plata Videos

Puerto Lopez

Here are links for a complete set of JET and Tall Guy’s images from this trip…

Author: TG&jet

Nature photographers - wildlife, landscapes, underwater; travelers; bloggers

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