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Off the coast, a quiet island shines

A masked booby shelters its young on Isla de la Plata in Ecuador's Machalilla National Park. A masked booby shelters its young on Isla de la Plata in Ecuador's Machalilla National Park. (ALBRECHT G. SCHAEFER/CORBIS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ami Albernaz
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2007

ISLA DE LA PLATA, Ecuador -- On a balmy October afternoon, I am one of 11 sunscreen-slathered tourists trekking through a whitewashed landscape on an island off the coast of central Ecuador.

To judge by the withered kapok trees, shriveled figs, and stunning lack of greenery, one would guess it had been a year since rain last touched the island. Yet neither the drought nor our presence seems to bother the island's inhabitants, the blue-footed boobies who tend to their eggs and hatchlings on our path.

Farther ahead, red-footed and Nazca boobies do the same, squawking halfheartedly as we snap their pictures. Our path eventually leads us to a craggy cliff plunging into a turquoise ocean, with albatrosses and red-throated frigate birds hovering above. Given the scenery and the local inhabitants, we could have been in the Galápagos; instead, we were exploring Isla de la Plata, a lesser-known island less than 20 miles (rather than 600) off the mainland. In recent years, it has come to be known as the "poor man's Galápagos," because for a small fraction of the price, it offers visitors a limited but still rewarding glimpse of some of the world's most celebrated wildlife.

According to legend, Isla de la Plata was named for a stash of silver ingots that the English admiral Sir Frances Drake buried here after attacking a Spanish warship in the late 16th century. Over the years, the island has been mostly uninhabited; a hotel built in the 1980s was abandoned after its owners realized they could not reliably obtain water.

Yet it has become a tourist destination because of its population of birds and sea lions, along with the dolphins, orcas, and manta rays at home in the surrounding waters . Agencies in the fishing village of Puerto López on the mainland run one-day excursions that combine trekking and snorkeling or diving. Isla de la Plata does not have all the natural wonders that draw hordes of tourists to the Galápagos; you won't walk among lumbering tortoises, for example, or go swimming with hammerhead sharks. Isla de la Plata is probably best considered as part of a larger trip.

The island is part of Machalilla National Park, Ecuador's only coastal national park. Getting anywhere in the park will probably entail a stop in Puerto López, which in recent years has earned the title "the Acapulco of Ecuador." While the comparison may be the product of ambitious marketing, the town has undeniable charm.

The day before heading to Isla de la Plata, my travel companion and I, straight off a bus from Quito, followed one of the dirt roads off the dusty main street to an inn owned by a gregarious New Yorker named Armando Miller, one of a number of Americans who have found refuge in the town's agreeable year-round climate. A forty-something former Marine who traveled the world before settling in Puerto López seven years ago, Miller still speaks with the enthusiasm of the newly converted.

"There are so many different kinds of environments you can experience within five or 10 minutes of traveling here," he said. "There's the beach, the island, dry parts, and lush, green cloud forest." When we told him we intended to visit the island, he handed us a card with the name and address of a friend who ran tours. We walked down to the shore, but the " malecón, " or beachside boardwalk, looked drowsy, with just a lone coconut vendor manning a cart in front of the nearly empty beach.

For lunch, we chose a restaurant cheerfully decorated with plastic sea creatures and dined on a local delicacy called spondylus, a rubbery mollusk whose spindly, coral-tinged shells are commonly used in jewelry. Afterward, we hopped a bus to the top of the 3 1/2-mile road leading to Agua Blanca, the main archeological site of Machalilla National Park.

The deserted trail, marked only by an unmanned booth, was hot and buggy, lined with dusty cacti and more withered kapok trees. After walking an hour and passing only the occasional sign reading "Peligro, " or "Danger" (although of what was not clear), we were turned back by a herd of what looked like bulls ambling down the road toward us.

Our mission was salvaged a few minutes later when an SUV carrying a family from Guayaquil stopped to pick us up. We arrived at Agua Blanca with closing time just 10 minutes away, but a villager sitting by the entrance collected our $3 admission fee and agreed to take us on the mile-and-a-half loop through the settlement.

We passed funerary sites important to the Manteño, a pre-Inca civilization to which the people of Agua Blanca trace their roots, and eventually arrived at a small, gunmetal lake that reeked of sulfur . Our guide encouraged us to join the few villagers who were in the water, telling us it was good for treating skin problems and rheumatism. The lake was pleasantly warm compared with the chilly early evening air, and once in, we were given facials with the slippery mud from the bottom -- good, perhaps, for counteracting a month's worth of grime accumulated in Quito.

We eventually made our way in the dark back to the village entrance, where a Johnny Cash tune was blaring from an empty, thatched-roofed house that did double duty as a store and a bar. After a stop in the community's one-room museum, we hopped back into the SUV with the family from Guayaquil and headed back to Puerto López.

Two mornings later, we set out for Montañita, the surfing capital of Ecuador, about an hour farther down the coast. A 1960s bungalow village plopped in a typical Ecuadoran town, Montañita was awash with European backpackers who weaved in and out of the cafes and through the rows of tables where beads, pipes, and hemp jewelry were being sold.

A short distance from the vendors was the church and town square, where children played in front of cement stores adorned with logos for Pilsener, Ecuador's main beer brand. Meanwhile, the nearly pristine beach, which was all but deserted at low tide, became a playground by late afternoon, as surfers in dreadlocks who had been pacing the streets with their boards took to the ocean. We stood on the porch of a waterfront hostel and watched the waves curling in toward us, carrying some of the surfers to shore, but capsizing most along the way.

With sundown approaching, it was time to go back to Puerto López for the last time, to catch our night bus back to Quito. We told Miller about our outing as we gathered our things. Ever faithful to his adopted home, he said, "Everyone says Montañita has the best surfing. That's because it's well publicized. It's really good here, too."

Before leaving town, we stopped for a quick dinner at Tsunami, a small, friendly restaurant we had discovered the evening before. For $1.25, we got heaping plates of chicken, rice, salad, and patacones, or fried plantains. As we ate under giant wall posters for "Apocalypse Now," "The Italian Job," and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," we looked out at the empty dirt road with its garage-sized tourist agencies and convenience stores. It wasn't quite the same as looking out onto a dolphin-filled, crystal blue ocean, but in its own way, it was perfect.

Ami Albernaz, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay Hosteria MandalaNorth end of the beach, beyond the fish market (Puerto López)011-593-5230-0181 hosteriamandala.info Charming beachfront cabins with bar, game room, library, and musical instrument collection. Cabins range from $15 (one person) to $48 (family of up to 4 people) nightly.Baja MontañitaPunta Montañita, center bajamontanita.com Comfortable rooms for $40 (one person) or $50 (two people), includes breakfast.

Where to eatPicanteria Rey HojasOne of many seafood restaurants along the malecón in Puerto López, this cheerfully decorated spot offers a good variety of shrimp and fish, including the local delicacy spondylus. Main courses $3- $6.The Whale CaféAlso on the malecón in Puerto López, this friendly little spot is the place to go if you're craving something other than seafood. American owners Diana and Kevin serve up pizza, pasta, and even apple pie. Dishes $2- $6.

What to doMachalilla National Park Easily accessible by Puerto López, the park includes Isla de la Plata, the indigenous community and arch eological site Agua Blanca, and a handful of beaches. Park entrance fee is $20 and is valid for five days. Entrance to Agua Blanca is an additional $3 and includes the museum. A number of agencies in Puerto López offer daylong hiking and snorkeling/diving tours to Isla de la Plata costing $30-$35 (in addition to park entrance fee). Agencies include:Exploramar DivingMalecón, next to Spondylus restaurant011-593-5604-123 exploradiving.com Runs daylong, weekend , and four-day diving trips near Isla de la Plata for $95 daily. Isla ToursGeneral Cordova y Malecón agenciaislatours@hotmail.comOffers daylong trekking and snorkeling trips to Isla de la Plata for $30.

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