A trip to the Ecuadorian coast had been well overdue. After living in this remarkably diverse country for almost a year, this was the first time I was venturing so far west of the mainland. If I had known it was going to be so quick and hassle free, then there is no doubting more trips would have been enjoyed throughout my stay here.
The small fishing village of Puerto Lopez was the first place on the itinerary, famous for it’s location to the island of ‘Isla de la Plata’, kindly dubbed the ‘Poor Mans Galapagos’ by many travel agents due to the similar bird species found there. If visiting between the months of June and October there is also the chance of watching mating humpback whales. These huge mammals move towards the warmer Ecuadorian waters from the icy cold Antarctic to mate.
I was lucky enough to be visiting in the midst of such shows of humpback affection. Such opportunities, with only a couple of weeks left living in Ecuador before returning home to reality and full time paid employment were well relished.. A night bus journey to Puerto Lopez via the ever reliable, Reina del Camino bus company was needed. This journey passed without a hitch, on a road that had past complaints of kidnappings and robberies. The only highlight was watching the bus conductor manage to climb in through an open window after swinging down from the roof while the bus was travelling along the road in sweeping rain at a good 90mph. Suicidal behaviour if you ask me.
Reina del Camino is one of only two bus companies that have direct buses from Quito to Puerto Lopez (and visa versa) and offers probably the most professional and luxurious services I have experienced during my time in Ecuador. It’s certainly the first company that’s offered both air conditioning and workable toilets.
The air conditioning was so impressive I slept better than I ever had done when riding a night bus. When I awoke we were already working our way down the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun – a scenic coastal drive that works its way south towards Guayaquil) and only a few miles outside of Puerto Lopez itself. The early morning gloomy, grey skies added a depressing aroma to the cool temperature at this time of the year (July); grey skies are very much the norm. Puerto Lopez might feature as one of the top stop offs on the Ruta del Sol, but from first impressions, the Sol was going to be the last thing to be seen! This was something I hadn’t envisaged when packing my bag full of shorts and t-shirts. July is seen as the low season die to this gloomy weather, which is strange when considering it’s the best time of the year for whale watching.
Puerto Lopez is a quite unremarkable fishing village and first impressions can prove slightly disappointing. Once venturing off the tourist Malecon strip along the seafront, you come across roads that remind you more of a Sao Paulo or Nairobi slum rather than a popular backpacker destination. Packs of homeless dogs and feral cats roam the streets alongside piles of litter. The backdrop of the town is ruined by quarrying activity. Even Machalilla National Park, looming over the town, is only ten percent of its original size. As I walked through the town, crack squads of army personnel drove past on patrol. All were armed with the scariest looking guns I‘ve ever seen.
After arranging accommodation at Hotel Los Islotes (Malecon Julio Izurieta y Gral. Cordoba, Puerto Lopez, +593(05)2300-108), gaining sea views and the soothing sound of crashing waves for only $10 a night it was time to organise a whale watching tour. Tour agencies line themselves along the sea front Malecon, all of which offer similar, if not identical prices for the same activities. For $25 (not including the park fee) a full day’s tour was arranged with Machalilla Tours Agency (Malecón Julio Izurieta). This included a trip to Isla de la Plata, followed by snorkelling and if sighted; whale-watching. Food and travel is also included in this impressive price.
There’s nothing like arriving at the seaside and taking a stroll along the beach, the waves lapping at your feet. Unfortunately, Puerto Lopez’s beach doesn’t quite promote such romantic ideologies. The beach is a thriving place of hustle and bustle, especially first thing in the morning. Fishermen sell their quality catches to local restaurants and businessmen, while grown men ride past on children’s BMX bikes, baskets full of freshly caught shrimp haphazardly attached to the front.
It’s not unusual to walk past swordfish and sharks, some the size of a small adult being loaded on to the back of pick-up trucks. Further away from the chaotic scenes, the true scale of fishing, even at this local level can sadly be seen in all its negativity. It’s hard to walk more than a few metres without come across discarded starfish, crabs and the odd fish corpse deemed surplus to requirements. Even the hovering frigate birds, normally the first to take up the opportunity of a free meal stayed away in their masses.
Although I am sure the beach would be much more picturesque with less fishing activity taking place, it does give the village a workman like feel. This is a traditional way of life that’s normally lost when tourism comes a knocking. Walking along the small fish processing plants at the north end of the beach allows you to see just how skilled these people are, filleting the fish in a matter of seconds. Taking a closer look, I was a little concerned with seeing a mounting pile of shark fins. Maybe I’m wrong but isn’t this illegal in today’s society?
After enjoying a fried shrimp supper at Carmita (Malecón Julio Izurieta y General Córdova; accepts major credit cards), one of the best seafood restaurants in all of Puerto Lopez and perfectly located opposite the beach and next to my hotel, I moved along to the Whale Café for a few beers. This was a perfect place to end the day, watching the gloomy skies give way to the night. From the upstairs terrace I could see across the beach, and also watch local policeman bribe their way into having a rather tasty looking fruit salad at one of the Anthony Quinn kiosks below.
Not wanting to have such a late night before my tour the following day, I retreated to the safety and comfort of my hotel room where I forced myself to watch some of the evenings premiere TV entertainment; hanging humans by the skin from meat hooks, before raising them into the air. The person who took the pain the longest, won. I’m not sure what though.