ISLA de la PLATA, Ecuador
Who needs the Galapagos Islands when you can visit Isla De La Plata for a fraction of the price and only a short bus and boat ride away?
The “Poor Man’s Galapagos” is thousands cheaper and contains a few of the same species that Charles Darwin researched when theorizing evolution in the 1830s. Blue-footed boobies. Sea lions. Dolphins. Tortoises. Frigate and Nasca birds.
The island is an hour boat ride from the coastal city of Puerto Lopez, which is about a four-hour bus ride from Bahia.
We didn’t see any dolphins on the ride there, and when we were discussing which hours-long hike to take, our tour guide said one of the routes had only one sea lion and the other had none.
He’s old and the chances of seeing him are 1 in 30, the guide now tells us.
You get what you pay for, cheap chico.
After that, however, the sights weren’t poor.
Newborn baby Nasca chicks were disoriented and resembled enormous cotton balls. We got within feet of Nasca and Frigate nests.
Between the hike and snorkel, I watched some bird nosedive from 50 feet in the air straight into the water. Beneath, three turtles swam in the Caribbean-blue water a few feet from our boat.
Our snorkel near the coral reef on the eastern side of the island beat my previous experience in the Dominican and rivaled Hawaii.
The water was cloudy, but the fish sightings certainly made the $30 tour worth the price of admission.
First it was 10 to 15 door-crack skinny fish. Their circumference was the size of a deflated soccer ball. The fish showed off a navy and baby blue body, with a florescent yellow rear fin as their signature.
Two brief but exciting spies were of a long and narrow species with a gold body and lines of black polka dots, and a zebra-striped fish that displayed whiskers reminiscent of a goatee on a martial arts expert.
(No I wasn’t under the effects of mescaline or any other drug, but I don’t have photos of the fish to prove that I wasn’t. …)
Pessa, a first-time snorkeler, and I held hands and pointed out finds to each other. One of our other favorite finds had a rectangle profile, and a gray stripe down the middle of a black body. The fish displayed a fuscia border and a yellow tail.
Of the 17 members of our group, Pessa and I were the last ones in the water. She glanced back at me before she reluctantly pulled herself onto the boat. Her smile held the giddiness of a seven year old.
The bad horror movie “Birds” played out in real life in Puerto Lopez.
The guidebooks can sometimes write about a town’s fishermen coming in with their catch as a highlight. Part of me thought that the authors just didn’t have anything too exciting to say about that particular port.
Fisherman lugging in their fish, manta rays and hammerhead sharks had to fight off pesky thieves known as Frigates.
The thieves can’t get into the water because their wings don’t have the requisite oil to repel water and must rely on stealing food from others. By the sheer multitude of frigates, the getting must be good.
Cultural givings, err, misgivings
I often shadow Orlando while we clear vines and other undergrowth for our fledging trees.
With a machete, the Planet Drum boss and former member of the Ecuadorian military wields strokes more proficient than a brand-new, self-propelled lawnmower.
When we make trails to get to the trees, the man in his late 40s or early 50s will whack low-hanging branches of a tree so we can pass. However, he’s a stocky 5-foot-6, and I need to increase the clearance height with another whack.
When I did so last week, Simon, the new English volunteer, half-jokingly says, “You didn’t have to do that.”
In a deep, stereotypical macho man’s voice, I responded, “It was in my way, Simon.”
“That’s a pretty American thing to say,” he said minus the joking tone but with his typical boisterous laugh.
“Broma, Simon, Broma,” I said using the espanol word for joke. “Plus, I’m following the lead of an Ecuadorian.”
Later that week, after our hike on Isla de la Plata, Simon’s wife, Jane, asked Sam, an exceptionally quiet volunteer and avid runner back home in Washington state, how the he enjoyed the “hike.”
“Good,” said Sam in his typical long-windedness.
Then Jane reminded herself of another one of her points to which the English are vastly superior to Americans.
“I think it’s funny how you Americans call it a hike!” she said. “In England, we call it a walk, but Americans go on a hike!”
“Oh, the English are so calm and relaxed,” I deadpanned.
The cultural disconnect reminded me of a similar experience in London.
In a study abroad class, my English-native professor was criticizing US citizens from calling themselves “American.”
There is some conceited truth to that, but a friend’s retort was better.
“Isn’t your name Great Brittan and the United Kingdom?”
After sharing that story with Jane and Simon, Jane sheepishly said, “We are great.” Then after a pause, she acted like she was bowing down to me.
I thought Jane’s retort was “rubbish.”
The point is that none of us invented the diverging dialects of this language.
Later, Suzie, a new Australian volunteer, said they “hike” down under – and they’re a member of the Commonwealth!
I was standing in a firm two-point stance facing the tide in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.
Smoking a cigarette, I thought about my beautiful life and what led me to this spot.
During a family vacation to San Diego as a teenager, I remembered watching the moon-lit waves while sharing a late-night cigar with my dad.
He stared longingly at the ocean – seemingly searching for some sort of answer.
I then emulated his attention to the sea. I gained no bits of wisdom, but thought about inheriting his curiosity and how it led me here.
I concluded that the tide was going out.
Then the first wave wet my feet, and I thought about the optimism and faith that I inherited from my mom and how that led me here.
I then ponder. … Maybe the tide is coming in? …
(Thanks for the support, mom and dad. I love you both.)
Minnesota mosquitoes love my blood.
Ecuadorian mosquitoes were ambivalent to my blood during the first month in the country’s sierra and coast – until I got to Puerto Lopez.
I awoke in the hostel after the first night with five towering bites on – of all places – my forehead.
Pessa, Laura and Paress each stole stares at the mountain tops on my forehead.
“You can look at the Andy all you want, but stop looking at the Andes Mountains,” I would say, thinking I was clever.
Ramon showed up later that evening and wanted to speak some Espanol. Thinking of something to say, I couldn’t get my big brain past my itchy forehead.
I stumbled out with: “Cinco mosquito en mi … [repeatedly pointed to forehead] … cabesa … anoche. … Cinco cabesa!”
Paress overheard and burst out laughing. She thought that I was describing my “fivehead.”
That’s funny because its true, but my fore (five) head still itched.