Do you want to know how Isla de la Plata got her name? I mean, why is it called the island of the silver? our guide asks us. He looks back over his shoulder at the rocky cliff face behind him.
We nod that we’d like to know.
He says, Okay. There are two stories.
He says, The first story, it’s about pirates. Okay. They say that the famous pirate Sir Francis Drake buried all his treasures here in the sixteenth century. And still there are some here on the island. And so it’s an island of silver.
We all nod. In his group there are eight people, all of us students from the Spanish school in Montañita, venturing out for the weekend. It seems a good enough reason to us.
He says, Now, the second story, it’s about the moon, and also about bird shit. Okay. Don’t laugh. Okay. In the nesting season of the blue footed boobies, there is so much white shit on the side of the cliffs. When the moonlight shines on it, on a night very bright and clear, the whole island is lit up. Like shining silver.
He laughs loudly and we laugh with him. This reason seems even more plausible than pirates.
Whatever the reason for the name, the Isla de la Plata is a perfect day trip from Puerto Lopez. We walk up through low green bushland, past coloured tropical flowers and drooping heavy bows. The air is buzzing with hot weather insects. Lizards, some shining brown, some with brilliant coloured scales, scuttle into the bushes as we trek along the path. The guide is friendly, speaks with me in Spanish, wipes sweat carefully from his neck. We talk about education, then how Ecuador and Australia have a lot in common; I recognise a lot of these plants from home.
Isla de la Plata is a part of the same national park, Machalilla, that is home to Los Frailes beach — reputably the best in Ecuador. An organised tour trip from Puerto Lopez will get you to Isla de la Plata for US$30-40, depending on the size of your group and how charming you are. This will normally include lunch and a guide to take you around one of the island’s walking paths. The best path differs with the season and what the island’s famous residents, the blue footed boobies, are up to at the time. We took the cliffside trail Los Acantilados. Take your guide’s advice on where to go to make the most of your trip.
Isla de la Plata is fondly called the ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos’, because many of the species you’ll see here are big attractions in the famous archipelago. Both sitting on the equator, they have remarkably similar environments. Having seen both Isla de la Plata and the Galapagos islands, I can assure you this is no Galapagos, poor or otherwise. However, if you’re not going to make it to Galapagos, I’d say it’s definitely worth the US$30 to see so many famous boobies (ha) and have a trip out on the ocean. If you’re doing both, do the silver island as a warm up like I did, because you might be underwhelmed by Plata if you see Galapagos first.
That said, Isla de la Plata has much to attract nature lovers. From June to September I’m told you’re bound to see whales. It’s not whale season when we’re there, but we’re an hour into the 1.5 hour boat trip when a huge pod of dolphins surrounds us, surfacing smoothly, diving and splashing around the little boat. We’re all smitten, of course. I’m privileged to have seen many dolphins in my life, but it never loses its novelty. The beautiful creatures are the perfect introduction to the wildlife of Isla de la Plata and Ecuador.
To make the trip, head to Puerto Lopez malecón, the shorefront, before 9am. Duck into a few tour shops and see what prices you can get. Doing it last minute will usually save you a few dollars, as operators want to fill their boats, set to leave around 10 or 11.
Time needed: day trip
Cost: US$30-40 (take a big group and knock the price down)
Highlights: blue footed boobies, sea turtles, dolphins, cliff views, boat trip, snorkelling.
What to take
+ Suncream + hat. The walk will be sunny and hot.
+ Snacks. You’ll be fed, but if you’re prone to the hangers like me, it’s wise to guard against small lunches.
+ Walking shoes. Though you can do the walks in flip-flops, trainers for the island paths is a more sensible option.
+ Swimwear. Most trips will include a short snorkelling stop, so make sure you’re prepared with swim gear. Snorkel and fins should be provided.
+ Camera. The views are beautiful and the boobies happily let you get close enough to snap a good shot. Remember, if you’re snorkelling, to take a plastic bag or waterproof to put your camera in while you swim.
+ Your passport number. Not the passport! Just memorise or write down your number for the booking office.
HOT TIP: when you’re booking, mention you’d like a vegetarian lunch, and usually you can get it. I don’t know how good you are at turning a blind eye to things, but even for carnivores, being offered tuna sandwiches while watching a darling pod of dolphins seems a little unpleasant, given the tuna fishing-dolphin killing connection, no? Am I just using this to remind you to think about your food? Yes. Yes I am. Love ya!