Almost Nothing Stays the Same

Every summer humpback whales make their way up the coast off South America from Antarctica to breed and give birth. We have traveled to the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador multiple times to photograph this migration and after a three-year hiatus due to Covid, we were finally able to return in August 2022.

Fort Lauderdale airport

International air travel has changed since the last time we flew:  there are new health forms to fill out, the airports are crowded and disorganized, and the planes are packed.

Guayaquil airport

But our flights were relatively on time and our luggage arrived with us, so our travel was easy compared to some of the horror stories we’ve heard!

our flights were relatively on time and no lost luggage!

Puerto Lopez is a three hour drive north of Guayaquil airport and our pre-arranged taxi was there to meet us at midnight.  Years ago, on our first visit to Puerto Lopez, we discovered Hosteria Itapoa, a delightful bed & breakfast, and have stayed there ever since.

Hosteria Itapoa

It was like coming home to find our bed in cabana 16 ready for our 3 am arrival!

coming home to cabana 16!

The gardens at Itapoa grow more beautiful each year and every morning at breakfast we tried to capture a few of the birds that flitted around us.

a few of the beautiful birds in Itapoa’s gardens

The dogs are still there, including “Pelican”, who we first met as a little puppy!

Pelican!

The town of Puerto Lopez has changed a lot since our last visit.  Many restaurants and shops did not survive the pandemic but we were happy to find a few of our favorites still in business.

our favorite restaurant, Patacon Pisa’o, is still in business and as delicious as ever!
Aloha Cafe is still there (and now you can get a tattoo while you wait)

We also discovered some new gems.

The Blue Boobie is a new restaurant with very good vegetarian options!

Where there were once just a few ramshackle beach bars spaced quite far apart, there is now a continuous strip of competing, brightly decorated full-service restaurant/bars, each blaring loud music and lit up at night like the Las Vegas strip.

the beach bars at night

The fisherman still come in at the southern end of the beach in the early mornings — the same cacophony of colors, sounds, and smells.

Puerto Lopez fish market

Years ago we found Palo Santo Travel, one of the many whale-watching tour companies in town.

Palo Santo office

We were impressed with the respect with which both the captains and guides treated the whales and found out later that the owner, Cristina Castro, is affiliated with the Pacific Whale Foundation. 

Palo Santo II
Cristina, Captain Paul, and guide Silvano

The Pacific Whale Foundation partners with various research programs and Palo Santo allows guests to accompany them on scientific outings. 

riding along on a research outing

This year’s project is part of the Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Sentinel Program, out of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.  Tissue samples are being collected to study organic pollutants as well as determine the size of the fat cells in the whale’s blubber — an indication of their food supply.

getting ready to collect a tissue sample

PWF’s Juliana fearlessly stood on the bow of the boat collecting samples from the massive, 40-ton animals, looking for all the world like Xena, the Warrior Princess.

Juliana

While Luna watched from above, taking photos and meticulous notes on which whales were biopsied, the GPS coordinates, and the weather conditions.

Luna and Captain Paul
meticulous note-keeping

It was exciting and interesting to watch and learn – plus it gave me a new appreciation for the courage of scientists in the field!

the boat got very close to the whales!

Each day the two Palo Santo boats traveled to Isla de la Plata, an island located approximately 25 miles from Puerto Lopez.  We looked for whales on our way to and from.

on our way to Isla de la Plata (Palo Santo I)

Once on the island, we had the opportunity to enjoy the many green sea turtles swimming in the bay,

there are always green sea turtles swimming in the bay at Isla
wet landing off the boat

And then hike up to the top of the hill

800 meters a little flat and then 156 steps up

to enjoy the blue-footed boobies,

blue-footed booby pair
hiking on Isla de la Plata

Nazca boobies,

nazca booby with egg

Magnificent frigatebirds,

magnificent frigatebird with chick

And the many other birds that call this “Poor Man’s Galapagos” home,

collared warbling finch
Baird’s flycatcher
long-tailed mockingbird

Along with gorgeous views from high up on the cliffs.

the view from the top

There is always time to snorkel in the bay and I have loved diving down to listen to the whale songs or photograph the fish and turtles. 

always time for snorkeling (photo by Silvano)

But this year the water was too cold for this wimpy South Floridian, so I passed my underwater camera to Silvano who had fun snapping pics of what he spied.

underwater photos by Silvano

In past years we have been treated to amazing breaching activity – part of the whale’s mating ritual. 

mother’s tail and calf’s head

And although we saw an occasional breach and plenty of mothers with calves, we had yet to find a good “jumper” on this trip. We were starting to feel a little frustrated with our photos thus far.

one quick jump and he was done

We are early risers and were ready for coffee long before Itapoa’s 8 o’clock breakfast so each morning we walked down the beach to a spot open at 7 am:  Jouser. 

Jouser’s beachfront restaurant opened at 7 am
morning coffee at Jouser

It was at Jouser that we met a tour operator named Winston Churchil. (Yes, Churchil with one “L”)

me, Winston, and TG

Winston arranged for us to go out on a small panga with Miguel, a local fisherman. 

Miguel and his panga

There are five things needed for perfect whale photos: 

(1) Good light at your back – which is tough in Puerto Lopez as it’s almost always overcast in July and August. 

perfect light — rare in Puerto Lopez in July and August!

(2) The boat must go slow and steady as possible. 

(3) Patience – a lot of it! 

(4) A good captain who knows whales and knows the waters.

And,

(5) Luck – although a good captain can make his own luck.

Miguel was an excellent captain!

We hit the jackpot with Miguel.  The sea was calm and the light was beautiful.  For once the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  Miguel puttered along at a rate so slow we were barely moving.

slow and steady driving

It took some patience but in the end we were rewarded with a beautiful baby humpback breaching over and over and over.  It was magical.

a baby whale breaching in perfect light against the backdrop of Puerto Lopez

Another change this year was that our favorite captain, Jaime, was no longer with Palo Santo.  He was the best captain we’ve ever had and we sorely missed his expertise on the boat.

Captain Jaime, 2013

One morning Jouser was closed so we backtracked to Spuma del Mar, an open-air restaurant on the Malecon.  This turned out to be incredibly fortuitous.  

morning coffee at Spuma del Mar

While sitting at a sidewalk table at Spuma, a passing car suddenly slammed on the breaks and the driver hopped out.  It was Captain Jaime and what a joyful reunion we shared! He now runs his own boat and agreed to take us out for a private tour on Monday morning, our last full day. 

Captain Jaime!!

As expected, it was off the charts.  Captain Jaime delivered not one but two jumpers.  We had a whale breach right next to the boat 43 times – 43 ½ if you count a spy hop. 

Captain Jaime, me, and the jumper
43 1/2 breaches in a row!

And as one was jumping right in front of us, we had another whale in the distance that also breached — 11 times!

another whale breaching in the distance

Captain Jaime and I kept count, whooping and shouting out the numbers until I finally said I need to switch to English as it’s too hard for me to keep track of both jumpers and also remember how to count in Spanish!

grinning like the Cheshire cat!

When it appeared that the whales were finally at rest, I asked if we could look for the “lobos marinos” (sea lions) on Salango Island. 

It was a bit of a detour but Capt Jaime readily agreed and beelined us to the island where we found six big, beautiful sea lions sunbathing on the rocks.

sea lions on Salango Island

It was everything we could have hoped for and we could not have scripted a better end to our week in Puerto Lopez. 

TG and Captain Jaime at Salango Island

We’re already dreaming about going back!

Hasta Pronto Puerto Lopez, see you soon!

You can view our complete Flickr albums by arrowing through the below images.

TG:

salango Pano 1-SharpenAI-Focus-DeNoiseAI-standard

JET:

Machalilla National Park, Puerto Lopez Ecuador

The Colorful Faces of Puerto Lopez: July 2011

Our first visit “Chasing Silver,” watching the humpback whale migration off the coast of Ecuador

the garden at Hosteria Itapoa

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. 

Hosteria Itapoa

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.

“Observación de ballenas”
the beach at Puerto Lopez

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.   

Puerto Lopez harbor
stray dogs everywhere

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.

surfacing close to the boat
humpback whale tail

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.

Las Frailes

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.

horseback tour through the jungle

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.  

whacking the way ahead with machetes

But we are treated to panoramic views every where we look; we see rare capuchino and the more common black howler monkeys.    

howler monkey

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.

TG
Roberto and Policarpo
Roberto knocking down oranges

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. 

humpback tail with boat
humpback breaching next to boat

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. 

Isla de la Plata

We see blue-footed boobys, their webbed feet dipped in bright blue “paint,” red-breasted and brown frigates, warbling finches, and albatross. 

blue footed booby
red-breasted frigate

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.

view from Isla de la Plata

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.

green sea turtle

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 are giddy

We  try a different restaurant every night.  Puerto Lopez is a fishing village.  We order fish; none prepared quite the same way. 

“pescado frito con arroz”
Pilsener: the only beer we ever drink

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. 

caña at Bambu

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. 

Agua Blanca

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.

the healing waters at Agua Blanca

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. 

not much activity

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.

hike up to the mirador
TG 
view from the mirador at Las Frailes

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. 

humpback whale breach

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.

Puerto Lopez chicken

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.  

the drive to Manta

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. 

the drive to Manta

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.

TG on the plane

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