Just like the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands are another one of those places that is on everyone’s radar when traveling through South America.
Unlike the Amazon, no matter how you look at it a trip to the Galapagos is going to run you at least $1,000 USD. Luckily, for the weary backpacker, I discovered that there exists a “Poor Man’s Galapagos”. And later, I discovered that there are actually two of them, one in Peru and one in Ecuador (Peruvian one to follow). The Ecuadorian version begins in Puerto Lopez, a sleepy little fishing village about an hour north of the very famous party/surf city of Montañita. Since Montañita is always synonymous with “party” and “crazy”, Puerto Lopez presents itself as a nice, quiet alternative to the insanity of Montañita if that’s not what you’re into.
To be perfectly honest, the town of Puerto Lopez itself is a sorry-looking place, and I was a bit worried about where I’d ended up the first time I laid eyes on it. But what the town lacks in aesthetics is made up for by the magnificent beauty of the surrounding area and natural parks, so, we can forgive it for that.
There are plenty of cabanas and hotels further down the beach and separate from the town. Hosteria Mandala is the most unique and entertaining lodging I have ever seen in my life and definitely worth shelling out for (“shelling out” in Ecuador means $50 for your own private bungalow with a deck and hammocks in the most beautiful hotel around).
This is a slow moving place that begs you to relax. So that’s what we did, for 5 days. Being a fishing village and all, you can try some amazing seafood and fish. Haggling with the waiter for the price of a whole, fresh caught fish and it’s accompaniments is one of the highlights of my Puerto Lopez experience (we got him down to $15 for a whole sea bream cooked in front of us on the grill, salad, beans, rice, fried bananas and 2 beers) and the Arroz de Mariscos, a hefty plate of rice chock full of every kind of seafood you could want, was so delicious we ordered it multiple nights.
The beach is full of seafront bars on the sand to have a cocktail or a fresh blended juice and watch the sunset. Indeed, this was one of the best places I’ve ever been for sunset-viewing. You could count on a spectacle every single night.
The Poor Man’s Galapagos (of Ecuador) is Isla de la Plata- “Silver Island”- and is about an hour away from Puerto Lopez by speedboat. The Galapagos Islands you must fly to which is part of the reason why they are a much more expensive experience. Of course, nothing actually compares to the real Galapagos islands but, it’s better than no Galapagos at all. You can observe a lot of the same species, though not all of them.
We bargained down to $30 USD in one agency in Puerto Lopez for a day trip to the island, including transportation, a walking tour, lunch, and snorkeling. That’s a far cry from the $1,000+ you’d spend to do the real thing and was well worth it.
“Plata” means “silver” in Spanish, but despite rumors that pirate Sir Francis Drake buried treasure here centuries ago, it was actually named for the fish scales in bird excrement that make the island glimmer so that boats coming from the mainland could see it shining brightly in the distance. Hence, “Silver Island”. There are no people living on the island, and you can only access it with a tour and a guide.
I could tell that I was getting closer to the Galapagos sitting in Puerto Lopez, watching what seemed like millions of birds diving straight into the water to fish. These turned out to be frigates, the main bird that inhabits Isla de la Plata. Besides that there are blue-footed boobies, albatross, sharks, seals and sea lions. It may not have the giant tortoises of real Galapagos fame, but the water was abound with turtles, who came flocking in for scraps of bread we threw off the boat during lunchtime, along with big, colorful, tropical clown fish. On the way back, dozens of dolphins engulfed our boat from all sides.
The island alone would have made Puerto Lopez a worthwhile experience, but about ten minutes away and $1 USD by public transportation lies the most beautiful beach in Ecuador and for me, the nicest I have seen thus far in South America: Playa de los Frailes. You can take a small tuk tuk directly to the Playa de los Frailes beach, or opt to do a 2 hour hike that takes you past two other beaches that are even more secluded and two beautiful viewpoints over the park. Unless you have a really good reason not to, your choice ought to be the latter.
At the main beach, Playa de los Frailes, there is a reef, so bringing a snorkel is a good idea, but you have to go early in the morning or visibility is low because of the tides. The beach is only open until 4pm so it is worth your while to go early anyways and make the most of this incredible place. If you’re staying in Puerto Lopez for a few days, I would just spend them all at Los Frailes beach rather than the beach in the town. It’s worth the couple of bucks you spend to get there.
I didn’t get to see much in Ecuador, but this was probably my favorite one that I did and highly recommendable if you need a place to stop and relax and “get away from it all” in your travels. Definitely somewhere that I will go back to if I find myself in Ecuador again.