They call Isla de la Plata “The Poor Man’s Galapagos“. Much like the Galapagos, Isla de la Plata also has blue-footed boobies. You’ll find tortoises (though not the giant kind), humpback whales, and tiny crabs. It’s a rugged, beautiful island; a paradise for mostly forgotten species.
While it’s just one island rather than 15, Isla de la Plata is a pretty good Galapagos alternative for those of us on a budget; an Isla de la Plata tour will cost as little as $50 and is one of the coolest things to do in Ecuador.
Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to Isla de la Plata including how to get there, when to go, what to expect, and how to book an Isla de la Plata tour.
How To Get There
In order to reach Isla de la Plata, you will need to arrange transportation to Puerto Lopez – a small fishing village on the coast of Ecuador. For some, Puerto Lopez is a place to recharge. For others, a day trip to visit the island.
Puerto Lopez is the perfect stop on your way down the coast. If you fly into Quito, you can take an overnight bus or a domestic puddle jumper to Manta, and then from there take a 1.5 hour taxi to Puerto Lopez.
I found solace in Puerto Lopez. It was almost like a silent retreat if I had chosen for it to be. Walking away from the town down the beach towards the cliffs, there was nothing and no one. The only sounds I heard were the waves crashing and the wind blowing in the palm trees; it was truly blissful.
Albeit not a large town by any means, there is a lively and bustling harbor about 3/4 of a mile down the beach where the fishing boats go out every day to catch fresh tuna, mackerel, mahi, and other white tropical fish.
Needless to say, I ate the most amazing ceviche every single day that I was there. All of the restaurants along the Main Street offer fresh fish dishes for around $6.
Where To Stay
I visited during the beginning of “off season” – so the town was very quiet. In fact, I could count on 2 hands the number of tourists I saw most days. Even during the busy season, there is not much action apart from the beach bars and restaurants.
The town is mostly oceanfront with one Main Street paralleling the beach. Restaurants and hostels are lined up for about a mile down the road. At the end of town, on the other side of the bridge, there are a few more “touristy” accommodations. One resort and a couple of independently owned hotels.
For a resort experience – Hosteria Mandala $60-75/night
Beachfront, breakfast included, restaurant on the property, hammocks and private cabanas on the beach. Secluded and surrounded by foliage. Truly a relaxing and quiet getaway.
For an eco-friendly “one with nature” experience – Hosteria Playa Sur $25-30/night
Beachfront private cabanas with 1 or 2 double beds and a bathroom (with hot water!) There is no restaurant on the property, but there are surrounding hotels and many nearby restaurants. This accommodation is great for nature lovers who are on a budget, but who also need peace and quiet outside of the hustle and bustle to sleep.
For a budget conscious traveler – Hostal Machalilla $8 -$10/night
A family run bed and breakfast in the middle of town. Puerto Lopez isn’t necessarily a party town, but on the weekends the beach bars do play very loud reggaeton until about midnight. There is also one nightclub that has a closing time of about 4 am. This hostel is about a 5 minute walk away from the noise, so unless you’re a very light sleeper, noise shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
What To Do
The main reason that tourists visit this town is to tour Isla de la Plata. There is also a lovely beach about 5 miles north called Playa Los Frailes – a beautiful white sandy private beach at the end of a short walk through the trees. Personally, I found the beach in Puerto Lopez to be just as nice. It was empty, white sand, swim-friendly, and I didn’t have to pay to get there! The beach in Puerto Lopez runs about 2 miles long, which makes for a lovely sunset walk. You can watch the hundreds of sea birds attacking the fishermen bringing in their evening catch.
Isla de la Plata Tours
AKA The Poor Man’s Galapagos, or Little Galapagos.
About an hour off the coast of Puerto Lopez you’ll find Isla de la Plata – Silver Island, home to the blue footed boobies. The reason as to why it’s called the “poor man’s Galapagos” is pretty self-explanatory; for those who don’t want to break the bank, but still have the urge to see the blue-footed boobies and turtles!
This island is a national park, so no one actually resides on the island as it is a natural reserve. There were once inhabitants about 50 years ago, until those responsible for keeping the birds safe realized that many residents were bringing cats onto the island. Cats like birds… you do the math. Apart from the boobies, there are also snakes, lizards, and many other species of birds. Tour companies actually offer a “birding” tour for those who are interested.
The most common Isla de la Plata tour costs $35-40 for the entire day. This includes whale-sighting (depending on the season), a 3-hour walking tour of the island where you’ll see the aforementioned animals, a snack and lunch, and the option to snorkel the reef before returning to Puerto Lopez.
Make sure to book your Isla de la Plata in advance if you’re planning to travel in the peak season. The busiest time to visit the island runs between the months of June – October, and is when the humpback whales’ migration period is. During these months you are pretty much guaranteed to see them. I myself regrettably did not see any whales as I toured the island in November.
If you’re traveling in the off months, you can book a tour to visit Isla de La Plata the night before and you’d be fine. Make sure to check the weather beforehand – the boat ride/hike would not be fun in the rain.
How To Book Your Tour
There are many tour companies to choose from for around the same price, but not every tour offers the same perks. The tour takes about 7 hours, so plan on a full day. Don’t forget a ton of water, a hat, and sunscreen.
The tour I chose, Aventuras La Plata, picked me up from my hotel and took me to the boat at the pier. There were two guides, one English speaking and one who spoke Spanish. This was a huge perk as the tour company was able to split the group into 2 and make it a more intimate experience.
We set off on an hour speedboat journey. Disclaimer – if you get motion sickness, take a Dramamine and/or sit in the keel of the boat. One man had the misfortune of getting quite sick off the back of the boat and was out of commission for the rest of the tour (partially due to not realizing we’d be charging through the waves, mostly due to having one too many shots of tequila the previous night.)
The tour guides provided us with a post-hike snack of fruit and banana bread before docking at the coast of the island. We had a quick rundown of the different intensities of hikes we could choose between based on wildlife spotting preferences – one being easy and the other hard. Turns out both groups ended up choosing the “easy” path which took us all the way down to the edge of the cliff where we saw the blue-footed boobies not only nesting, but also flying off the cliff’s edge.
Whichever path you do choose, you have to get up the top of the hill from the beach first, which has a very significant incline. You will need your water bottle with you (this part of the walk will absolutely get your heart pumping), and to be wearing substantial shoes. There is a giant set of stairs (I believe he said it was 800 steps), and a few of the planks are slightly uneven. Once you get to the viewpoint at the top of the hill, it’s all downhill from there (until you have to walk back up to the top!)
The Blue-Footed Boobies
Of course I had heard of blue-footed boobies years ago in biology class, but I hadn’t quite remembered what they looked like. I had spent the previous night googling them, and had high expectations of their goofy (and awesome) appearance. Seeing them up close and personal, both of those characteristics were enhanced ten-fold.
Our guide explained to us the difference between the males and females – major difference being the sound they make. I’ll never forget the piercing sqwauk that the males made, warning us to back off their turf. Unfortunately, most of the boobies were posted up right in the middle of the path, so we had no choice but to step on their “turf.”
We were advised not to touch them or get too close, but most of them didn’t seem to mind us walking by. There were a few that tried to chase after us, which was both hilarious and possibly a little intimidating… I sure didn’t want my ankles being nipped!
We came to Isla de la Plata in search of the blue-footed boobie, and we certainly got our fix!
As I mentioned before, Isla de la Plata is known as Little Galapagos but is literally translated to Silver Island. Our guide explained that the island sometimes lights up a beautiful silver color under the night sky. The reason? Bird poop. Lots of bird poop.
Don’t Forget Your Water, Folks
The hike down to the cliffs’ edge and back up the hill to the viewpoint took about an hour. Both groups had about a 20 minute gap in between each other so that we didn’t cram the trail. Having led first, our group headed back down the stairs towards the beach where we had the chance to catch our breath and guzzle our bottles of water before the next activity.
The round-trip duration from the boat and back to the beach took about 2 hours in the sun with no shade, so we were ready for a dip in the ocean!
We all hopped back onto the boat where we were given lunch. Two small croissant “sandwiches” per person – one with tuna salad, and another with pineapple jam and cheese. It sounds like an odd combination, but it’s clearly a delicacy for a reason – sweet/salty/creamy all in one bite… yum!
Everyone was given the option to hang out on the boat, or put on some snorkel gear and jump in! Obviously I accepted the latter option. We were anchored right near a reef, so we had the chance to see an abundance of tropical fish, and sea turtles if they decided to make an appearance.
There may not have been whales, but in the clear waters that lap at Isla de la Plata we still found plenty to amaze us. Large schools of small silver fish surrounded us seemingly unbothered by our presence as giant sturgeon fish drifted below our floating bodies. Although the coral has long since lots its color, the sea life provides a vibrant backdrop to those snorkelling above. It was excellent.
The entire tour took about 6.5 hours, which was the perfect duration. Just in time to jump in the shower before enjoying a michelada at one of the many beach bars. I say bars, but they’re essentially just a row of huts that all serve the exact same menu – fruity cocktails, beers, and shots of every liquor imaginable.
Another cool thing that I loved about Puerto Lopez was the abundance of Palo Santo sold in many of the shops. I have burned palo santo for years to reap its healing and relaxing benefits, and was unaware of it’s origination – the Southern coast of Ecuador, where the climate is warm and tropical The only difference here being that a bag of 15 pieces of the wood cost $1, compared to in the US where the equivalent could easily amount to $40. Read more about the benefits of Palo Santo here!
So, was a trip to the Isla de la Plata worth it? Absolutely. If you’re a budget traveler in Ecuador hoping to have a taste of the country’s incredible array of bird and wildlife, then this is a great affordable alternative to the much pricier tours of the Galapagos. There may not be any sea-lions but, between boobies, tropical fish and turtle sightings, you’ll leave more than satisfied.
If you’re traveling down the coast of Ecuador, I strongly advise not missing out on this gem of a city!
The Traveling Yogi