Our first visit “Chasing Silver,” watching the humpback whale migration off the coast of Ecuador
It took a full day to get here: two planes, a five hour layover in Quito, another flight to Manta, followed by a two hour drive south to Puerto Lopez. Hosteria Itapoa is simple but clean and comfortable. It sits at the north end of the malecon, directly across from the beach. The rooms are small bungalows. Ours comes with a tiny second floor and balcony. Including full breakfast it is $13 per person per night.
Situated within easy walking distance of restaurants and shops, we head to Exploramar Diving first thing Thursday morning. I sign up for a two-tank dive to Isla de la Plata on Friday. And then we go whale watching.
We surrender our shoes to a large rice sack and walk across the beach. It is a cacophony of boats, fisherman still unpacking their gear, fish caught fresh that morning chopped and bleeding on blocks of ice, dogs chasing each other and birds swirling about.
We spend close to an hour searching before we find our first pair of whales. They stay close to the boat, surfacing to breathe and shoot water from their blowholes. They show us only their large hump backs but even that is magnificent. They are every bit as long as our boat – maybe longer. In the distance we see one breach. The boat races but by the time we are close enough for photos it has stopped. We do manage to capture a fluke, dripping with water. We are hooked.
After waiting for an hour at the dive shop on Friday morning I am told that the boat was overbooked. I cannot dive today day. I return to Itapoa. Not expecting me home until 5:00pm, TG is pleasantly surprised to see me. We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Las Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador. It is almost deserted and we are not disappointed. It is beautiful. We walk for an hour along the beach, photographing the pelicans and tiny sand crabs. In spite of the overcast sky it is a perfect day. I may (or may not) dive this week. The whales are calling.
Later that evening a young man tracks me down at the hostel. He is from Exploramar Diving. Management just found out what happened and he has come to apologize. They will have a space for me whenever I wish to dive. Regardless of whether or not I accept their offer, I appreciate their follow up.
Saturday we have arranged for a horseback tour through the jungle. No waivers are signed; no one even asks if we have any experience. If they had asked, we would have answered we have ridden an elephant more recently. At times it is absolutely terrifying. I am certain my horse will slip on the narrow path and we will slide down the side of the steep, muddy mountain. Our guides whack a path ahead of us with machetes.
But we are treated to panoramic views every where we look; we see rare capuchino and the more common black howler monkeys.
Roberto and Policarpo speak no English. They point out various plants as we struggle to understand. My pockets are full of tobacco leaves, coffee beans, and a tagua nut. “This leaf is good for medicine. The wood from this tree is used in constructing houses.” By three o’clock we are back at the road to meet the moto-taxi. We are exhausted but exhilarated.
It is Sunday and we have booked an all-day trip to Isla de la Plata. Barely twenty minutes out and we already find whales. At first we see only their backs. Suddenly one breaches. It is so close to another boat! We are at the perfect vantage point to photograph both the whale and the boat – giving perspective on how big these creatures really are. We spend an hour with him as over and over he rises up out of the water, showing us his enormous size before splashing back down beneath the waves.
It is time to move on to Isla de la Plata. “The Poor Man’s Galapagos.” It is a wind-swept island in the middle of nowhere, covered with palosanto trees. We recognize the sweet earthy fragrance. We smell it even before Sandra, our guide, points it out.
We see blue-footed boobys, their webbed feet dipped in bright blue “paint,” red-breasted and brown frigates, warbling finches, and albatross.
The landscape is rugged and somewhat barren this time of year. Sandra tells us that during rainy season everything is green and flowering. Off shore in the distance we see whales breach.
Back at the boat we are surrounded by huge green sea turtles. They are drawn to the pineapple chunks our crew is tossing overboard. We spend thirty minutes snorkeling in a quiet bay. The corals are pretty and I see many unfamiliar fish.
The boat heads back to Puerto Lopez. It has been a long day and the crew is anxious to get us home. We see whales breach and more water spouts during the hour-long ride back but it is full speed ahead. If Saturday left us exhilarated, today we are giddy. The camera is full of photos.
We try a different restaurant every night. Puerto Lopez is a fishing village. We order fish; none prepared quite the same way.
After dinner we have taken to stopping for a drink. Last night we found a quiet bar called “Bambu.” There is a sign on the wall: “Buena Vibre” Good Vibes. Tonight Jaime pours us home-made caña, a traditional Ecuadorian drink made fermented sugar cane. We are living on the edge.
After another full day of whale watching, we have decided to stay on dry land today. We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Agua Blanca, an archeological site dating back to pre-Columbian times. We have no idea what we are in for. There is a small museum filled with artifacts: funeral urns with human bones still tucked in the fetal position in which they were cremated. Alejo, our guide, patiently teaches as we struggle to understand his Spanish.
And then we set out on a two kilometer trek through the dry jungle, past a small banana plantation, over a river where women are hand washing clothes and on to a sacred pool. It is healing sulfur water. We coat our hands and arms in thick black mud, let it dry for twenty minutes and then rinse off in the pool. I lie on my stomach and let my arms dangle in the egg-smelling water. It feels silky. There are two toads on the bank next to me. Tall Guy says his arms are as soft as a baby but it does nothing for my dry hands.
After all the excitement earlier this week there is little whale activity on Wednesday. We are disappointed. We’ve been spoiled. We see one whale breach but are not in the right position for a photo. We see a few hump backs and one fluke. We spend too much time drifting, the engine idling. One person is sick, and then another and another. It is the domino-effect. TG and I sit towards the front of the boat, away from the diesel fumes, frustrated with our fellow passengers and the crew.
Once again back we head to Las Frailes. There is a small hill we want to climb. The view from the mirador at the top is breath-taking.
Thursday is our last day in Puerto Lopez. I have booked with a different boat. The captain and crew take care to position us so that everyone has a perfect view. They move the boat so that we are always at the best vantage point to see the whales.
It is, in a word, spectacular. Multiple breaches, a fluke (“cola”) so close I can almost touch it, and a pair that roll on their backs like overgrown puppies. But I am not feeling well. Not seasick, I have succumbed to Jaime’s fermented sugar cane drinks. I go straight to bed.
It is unfortunate as we have been invited to dine with a German couple also staying at Itapoa. They were fishing early this morning and have caught enough to feed everyone. The hostel kitchen is a beehive of activity: Maria, her mother, and daughter bustle about filleting fish, dicing potatoes and chopping onions. TG contributes two boxes of wine. I am sorry to miss the festivities.
By Friday morning we are both sick. We’re certain it was the caña. We will find out later there were bad batches of caña being served all throughout Ecuador. Many people died.
We manage to arrange a taxi to Manta. In spite of everything, I am happy to see this drive in the daytime. The coast of Ecuador is beautiful – nothing but rolling hills and unspoiled white beaches. The landscape is dotted with palosanto and ceibo trees. Between the magnificent views are tiny towns: one after the other. Machalilla. Puerto Cayo. Jipijapa. The main street of each village is lined with vendors, all featuring the same specialty. In one village it is beautiful wood carvings. In the next it is small loaves of bread, the women waive handkerchiefs to flag down the cars. In a third town all the shops sell grotesque ceramic piggy banks and urns. In yet another it is stall after stall of honey. They have recycled every conceivable glass container. We see honey in pickle jars, ketchup and Snapple bottles. All this flies by us at 70 kilometers per hour. We are both slightly queasy and wonder if it is even real. We are on to the next town before I can say for certain.
We land safely in Quito. The Mercure Hotel is a perfect way to end the trip: a comfortable king-size bed and plenty of hot water. We had plans for our last day. Jaime told us about a magic lake, a holy waterfall, and a mystic tree just outside the city. And we wanted to check out the thermal baths in Papallacta. But tonight we are content to order soup from room service and fall gratefully into bed.
Saturday is gloriously clear. We can see to the top of the mountains that surround this city. We had planned to take the cable car to the top of the volcano, Teleferico, at 13,000 ft. Instead we walk to the market. We are feeling better but we have a long day of travel ahead.
Magic lakes, holy waterfalls, and mystic trees will be here – for next trip.
P.S. In March of 2012, we returned to Ecuador to spend a weekend at the Otavalo market. We also visited the Mojanda Lake, Peguche Cascade, the sacred waterfall, and El Lechero, the mystic tree. You can watch our video slide show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLdcvrSMQ1o