After our first week in Quito, Leslie and I headed off to the beach. The city had been great and the party scene unlike anything I had seen in the United States, but it was time for a change in scenery.
The bus ride was long, insanely bumpy (at some points I swear our bus driver had decided to take us off-roading), and there was a baby that kept waking up every half hour and crying loudly. As should be expected (although it seems as though it’s always a surprise) the fact that it was an overnight bus did not mean that sleeping could or would occur, but eventually we arrived in Puerto Lopez on January 7th and passed out on the couch of our Hostel, Itapoa.
Puerto Lopez is a beautiful little beach town located about a two hour drive north of Montanita. It has plenty of tourists and, although it appears that a large portion of the income comes from tourists, it doesn’t give off that touristy vibe. It’s known primarily for the Isla de la Plata, aka “the poor man’s Galapagos,” and Los Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador. However, as we found, there are plenty of other things to do to keep you busy for a week or longer.
By about noon, our hostel room was ready for us to move in. In the mean time, we had experienced our complimentary breakfast (I use the word “experienced” intentionally for it is no ordinary hostel breakfast). The breakfast consists of a delicious three course meal beginning with fresh fruit (usually a large slice of juicy watermelon) and fresh jugo (fruit juice), followed by two freshly baked croissants, butter and jam, and a cup of coffee, and finally topped off with a plate of scrambled eggs. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it. Now time to move in, we carried our backpacks up the front steps to our private cabin. It was a large cabin, for just two people, and had two beds, a double and a twin, a private bath, and a porch with our very own hammock. However, at just $13 per person per night, the price was right and anyway, YOLO. The rest of the hostel was similar with five other cabins (each with their own hammock), a main lobby area, and the breakfast restaurant which was lifted off the ground and had two hammocks underneath for a grand total of seven hammocks.
Just chillin’ in my hammock
After moving in, we went out to explore the town and find the best restaurant serving almuerzos (literally translating to “lunch,” but in reality so much more). For anyone visiting Ecuador (or possibly other places in South/Central America, but this is the only one I’ve been) the almuerzos is the best and cheapest option for lunch. First of all, it’s a huge amount of food (it takes two or three courses) and, secondly, it usually costs around $2. The only downside is that it’s insanely unhealthy, but then again, so is most Ecuadorian food. The reason that traditional Ecuadorian lunch is so large is that Ecuadorians tend to eat only two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. (NOTE: Don’t let that deter you from visiting, however. Leslie and I found plenty of gringo restaurants open late for all the hungry tourists.) But even if you do plan to eat three meals, you should still treat yourself to a two or three course lunch. In Puerto Lopez, that usually means a bowl of fish soup, a fresh jugo, and a big fish filet.
After lunch, we walked across the street to the beach and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, walking along the shore, and relaxing. During our many escapades down the shore, we found a dead puffer fish, massive three foot eel, and a sea turtle shell! As the sun went down, we moved back up to the road where there are ten to fifteen little bars, found ourselves a pair of hammocks, and ordered a couple drinks. This was our typical day in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador — hostel breakfast, almuerzos, the beach, and drinks in hammocks — and I cannot imagine how it could have been better. Which does bring me to one note for any prospective Ecuadorian travelers, sunscreen is ridiculously expensive here and you can’t use too much, I’m talking $15 for a small tube of 30 SPF. And when you’re on the beach 50% of your day, that shit adds up! So bring a lot. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck like us, forced to get a little pink and spend a little extra money, but oh well… rough life.
On Wednesday, we took a break from our typical routine and visited Los Frailes. I am not be surprised that Los Frailes is listed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador and it was certainly the most beautiful beach I had ever seen. For $0.50 each, Leslie and I took a twenty minute bus ride to the entrance of the national park, Machalilla, and the head of the trail that winds around and ends at the beach after a good 3km hike. It was around 11:30AM when we finally started hiking, but already 80 degrees with 90% humidity. The path was unshaded and the plant life on either side consisted of cacti and brown, leafless shrubbery. Along the way we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of different lizards that went scampering out of our way as we hiked.
In addition to the main attraction (Los Frailes) the trail first took us to two other beaches and a mirador, or scenic lookout. Each beach was crescent shaped with massive cliffs on either side. A massive rock jutted out in the center of each crescent, a good distance from the shore, and rose up a good hundred feet to form a small plateau covered in cacti and pelicans. The sandy beach was covered in different types of shells, coral, and crabs.
Although it was insanely tempting, we decided to hold off swimming and just settle for wading at the first two beaches. It was absolutely worth it. Los Frailes was easily five times the size of either of the first two, and, although much more heavily populated, there was plenty of space for Leslie and I to spread out our one little towel (mine was too dirty) and have a whole section of the beach to ourselves. We read our books, hung out, and swam around in the waves for a good three hours before we finished the loop and headed back up to the road.
Instead of taking the bus again, we paid the extra $5 for a taxi and sped back to our hostel. (Side note: Taxis are very different in Puerto Lopez. They consist of a dirt bike, cut in half, with a covered wagon thing attached to the back. They have no shocks and probably aren’t the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation, but they’re really cheap and a lot of fun to ride in.)
On the day after Los Frailes, Leslie and I decided to take a tour to Isla de la Plata. The Isla is just an hour and fifteen minute boat ride from Puerto Lopez. We paid for a day long tour, which included food, a guided hike of the island (in English), and snorkeling, and cost us only $30 per person. Just thirty minutes into the boat ride we stopped to watch a whale for a while (I can’t remember what kind of whale it was, but it was a rare siting at this time of year and we were very fortunate to see it). Nearing the island, the next interesting animal we spotted was a sea lion sunning itself. We couldn’t get very close because there were huge waves crashing all around the rock the sea lion was sitting on, but it kinda just looked like an abnormally fat seal. We then landed on the island, ate a small snack, and started on our hike. For anyone interested in hiking the Isla de la Plata, know this: it is a bird watching tour with a few nice views of cliffs and waves. The birdlife and views are fantastic, but everything else receives a 0 (sun cover 0 / 5, ration of dead plant life to living 0:1, chance of being close enough to water to cool off 0) except the humidity which receives a 100%. But poor conditions aside, the views and birds are incredible and totally worth it. Around the first turn of the trail we spotted our first blue footed booby, awkwardly stumbling through the dead and dry bushes.
Then around the next turn another couple of boobies, standing in the middle of the path with their webbed feet crossed over each other (their feet are actually too big for them to not trip over themselves as they walk… it’s hilarious) and looking at us dumbfounded like a couple of deer caught in the headlights. The same could be said about the next turn, and the next, and really pretty much all of the rest of the turns. The island is covered in boobies, but they honestly never got old (especially when we reached the baby booby section).
A little known fact is that baby boobies compete in daily competitions to see who can look most like a snowman. Those who lose, are killed and strewn around the nesting areas as a reminder to all the other boobies. Later in the hike, we also got to see masked boobies (also known as Nasca boobies) and red footed boobies (whose feet are even larger than their blue footed compatriots and must therefore perch in trees because they would trip over themselves if they tried to walk on the ground). The hike lasted about 3 sweltering hours and eventually led back to the beach where we boarded our boat and headed off to the snorkeling site. Before we reached the site, however, we stopped to watch a fishing boat throw fish heads to the ten or fifteen sea turtles swimming around them. (Leslie wants you to know that this was her favorite part–it was the BEST!) Finally, we arrived at our snorkeling site, grabbed a pair of goggles and a snorkel, and jumped in. We were snorkeling above a coral reef and, the thousands of different fish species aside, the reef was beautiful and its many different contours and underwater caves were mesmerizing. In the thirty minutes or so of snorkeling I saw all of the fish Dr. Seuss had described and many more. My favorite fish was a brilliant bright blue color and was probably two feet long and a foot tall.
If you visit Puerto Lopez (which I highly recommend you do), spend a week! Stay at the Itapoa hostel (the woman who runs, Maria, it is extremely nice and speaks English), take a tour of the Isla, visit Los Frailes, and (most importantly) find time to just lay around on the beach or take a nap in one of the hundreds of hammocks.