Want to visit the Galapagos Islands but don’t quite have the budget? Luckily, there’s another small island off the coast of Ecuador that offers many of the benefits of the Galapagos at a fraction of the cost. Read on to learn more about Isla de la Plata, and how my two visits felt like I was exploring completely different islands.
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A Tale of Two Islands
Today, I want to tell you about two island trips I made while backpacking in Ecuador. The first was a blast: the island was lush and green, we saw some wildlife, and the views throughout our hike were stunning.
The second was a bit of a letdown. The island was bone dry, brown, and barren. I got one of the worst sunburns of my life and had to apologize profusely to my disappointed backpacking buddy for having sold him on the trip.
Amazingly enough, both excursions were to the exact same island, in the same month of the year, only two years apart.
It was on Isla de la Plata that I learned the value of doing your research and having realistic expectations when you travel. I also learned that revisiting a place doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll have the same great experience twice. Despite the initial disappointment of my second journey, however, I still believe that a trip out to Isla de la Plata is worthwhile and encourage you to consider it if you find yourself on the Ecuadorian coast.
My first visit to Isla de la Plata came at the end of January in 2008. I was studying abroad in Quito, and three friends and I decided to spend our final free weekend backpacking the country’s southern coast. Mark, Rachel, Ellen, and I ended up in the dusty seaside town of Puerto Lopez and fell in love immediately, toasting our journey with caipiriñas and other fruity tropical drinks as the sun sunk behind a wooded promontory and set the sea and sky on fire.
Visiting nearby Isla de la Plata was a priority for our time in Puerto Lopez. The island is touted as the “poor man’s Galapagos” due to its topography, proliferation of wildlife (including blue-footed boobies, gannets, sea lions, and dolphins), and the vast difference in cost and time to get there. The name, which translates to “Silver Island,” comes from the legend that Sir Francis Drake hid Spanish treasure somewhere among the rocky cliffs, cacti, and bird nests. It sounded like a home run! We booked four tickets with a local tour operator and set off on our full-day adventure the next morning.
Isla de la Plata is located about forty kilometers off the Ecuadorian coast, a trip that takes about an hour. We kept our eyes peeled for dolphins and enjoyed watching seabirds diving for prey or gliding in the wind beside our boat. Our tour was small, only a dozen or so passengers and a handful of crew members, and it was glorious to be out on the open water with the warm air and salty sea spray on my face.
After we reached the island and splashed ashore, we spent the next couple of hours hiking all across this lovely little nature preserve.
It was lush and green, with rocky cliffs that fell away into the teal-colored water. There were also plenty of opportunities to spot the nesting birds for which the island is famous.
The hike was gorgeous; at every turn, you got a new, beautiful view of rocky cliffs, gracefully rolling hills, and an azure sea that disappeared into a glittering horizon. Along the way, our guide filled us in on the natural history of the island and helped us to better appreciate all of the sights.
I took tons of photos, and my traveling companions and I kept gushing to ourselves about what a great day it was and how happy we were to be there.
After our hike, we returned to our boat for a satisfying boxed lunch and a bit of snorkeling. While we didn’t see much underwater, the dip was refreshing after all that time spent hiking in the sun. We returned to Puerto Lopez immensely happy with our decision to book a tour out to Isla de la Plata, and we counted the excursion as a highlight of our long weekend away from Quito.
Two years later, at the beginning of my three-month South American backpacking adventure, I once again found myself in Puerto Lopez. It was mid-January of 2010, and I had sold my backpacking buddy, Kyle, on visiting this part of the Ecuadorian coast with glowing accounts of how much fun I had had there two years earlier. The town was much the same as I remembered: full of good food, cold drinks, the busy comings and goings of fishermen, and a beautiful setting on a half-moon-shaped stretch of beach with rocky headlands on either end.
We booked a hostel and, at my strong suggestion, bought tickets for a tour out to Isla de la Plata the next day. I couldn’t wait to return.
When we arrived, however, my jaw dropped. The idyllic, verdant island that I remembered like this:
Had radically transformed into a brown wasteland:
It was as if I had traveled to a completely different place. I was beyond shocked as we traversed this foreign landscape, hiking through the brush with little greenery to be found anywhere. Only the little wooden hut at the end of one trail and some of the more recognizable rock formations along the coast were able to convince me that I was in the same place as two years before.
When I asked our guide if the island had been enduring a particularly dry season, I learned that my first visit to Isla de la Plata had been an anomaly. The island enjoys an arid climate, and the lush greenery that I had seen was most likely the result of an unusually wet season. I was awestruck at how two visits at the exact same time of year two years apart could be so radically different, and also shocked at how lucky I had been to experience the island in full bloom.
All was not completely lost, however, as we still got to enjoy the physical exertion of a hike and the commentary of our well-informed guide. Also, even though the surrounding cliffs were no longer overflowing with vegetation, the views of the rocky coastline hadn’t lost their ability to impress.
Furthermore, our group came across a number of blue-footed boobies and their chicks, which we had missed on my last visit to the island. I had never seen such a splash of brightness on an otherwise dull-colored bird! Their feet looked completely out of place on their little brown bodies.
In all, though, I returned to Puerto Lopez bitterly disappointed with the trip. I had looked back so fondly on my first visit to Isla de la
That day on Isla de la Plata taught me a valuable lesson about managing my own expectations when it comes to travel, particularly with regard to returning to a place I have already seen. I had done very little research about the island before either of my visits and thus assumed that my first experience was indicative of the norm. Had I been better informed, I would have had a more realistic expectation about what I was getting into, and could have approached my discussions with Kyle about our itinerary in a much different way.
That said, sometimes chance is a wonderful thing. Ellen, Rachel, Mark and I may not have taken the tour to Isla de la Plata if we had read that it could look like a barren wasteland. This decision would have caused us to miss out on a highlight of our trip and the good fortune of seeing the island in its full verdant glory. Similarly, had I not seen the island all lush and green on my first visit, I probably would have enjoyed my second much better.
That’s the crazy and exciting thing about travel: despite our best efforts, chance plays a big role in a lot of our experiences. Choosing one tour company over another could cause you to meet a fellow tourist who will become a lifelong friend. You could luck into a week of gorgeous weather in Scotland while your coworker spent her vacation there trudging through downpours. The historical site you’d journeyed to visit could be closed without warning, causing you to discover a hidden gem instead. The best thing you can do is be as prepared, flexible, and optimistic as possible when hitting the road, and never be afraid to take a detour or two when the chance presents itself.
It might surprise you to learn that, upon reflection, I still encourage you to make the trip out to Isla de la Plata, particularly if you are a bird lover. I believe that had I not had an unrealistic expectation in my head based on my previous visit (and painted such a vivid picture for Kyle that he shared it), we would have found the island quite beautiful, even in its arid state. The contrast of the arid landscape against the beautiful teal-colored water did hold a certain charm, especially when punctuated by the occasional green cactus. I enjoyed learning from our passionate guides and had fun observing the different types of birds, particularly the blue-footed boobies and their fuzzy, awkward chicks. There is also something to be said for getting away from the mainland and discovering a place that’s a little more off the beaten path, and both tours were well and professionally done.
Who knows, perhaps you’ll luck into a season where the rains have been steadier than usual and the landscape will be covered in green. But if you don’t, I hope you still seek out the charms that this silver island has to offer.
* Based on my research since the trip, I think we were a bit overcharged. While this may be an accurate and appropriate cost for the day, I encourage you to do some price comparison and see if you can negotiate or find a better rate.
Tips for Visiting Isla de la Plata
- Compare prices at the different tour providers in town, and don’t be afraid to respectfully ask if they can give you a better price than the one originally stated.
- Bring – and frequently reapply – sunscreen, especially if the island is dry and shade is scarce. You’re very close to the equator, so the sun is quite strong. Take it from me, backpacking with scorched shoulders is anything but fun.
- Wear comfortable shoes for hiking. The trek wasn’t arduous, but there are lots of rocks and roots waiting to stub your toes if they’re not protected. I love my KEEN sandals for hikes like these.
- If you’re prone to seasickness, make sure to bring along the proper medication in case the water is choppy.
- Bring a towel for after your snorkel unless your tour provides them. A light microfiber towel is great to have in your backpack for just such an occasion.
- The current was pretty strong when we snorkeled, so make sure to consult your guides before jumping in if you’re not a strong swimmer.
Tips for Visiting Puerto Lopez
- Make sure to take advantage of all the great seafood served in local restaurants. Camarones al
ajillo(shrimp in a garlic sauce) is one of my personal favorites.
- The town is very walkable, and there are plenty of decent accommodations and restaurants available. Don’t be afraid to explore and price compare. We stayed at Hostal Tuzco and had a good experience, and it seems to have been updated in the years since.
- Nearby Los Frailes, part of Machalilla National Park, is one of the prettiest beaches on the coast and well worth a visit. You can hire a moto-taxi to take you there (about 20 minutes).
Check out my complete guide to Puerto Lopez and the Ruta del Sol here!
How to Get To Puerto Lopez and Isla de la Plata
- Your best bet for getting to Puerto Lopez is taking a local bus. Buses in Ecuador are cheap, and you should be able to easily arrange passage from Quito, Guayaquil, or any other hub. Depending on your starting point, you may have to switch buses, so make sure you’re clear on your itinerary when you buy the ticket so that you don’t miss your stop!
- Isla de la Plata is also part of Machalilla National Park and is located about an hour’s boat ride off the coast. The easiest way to visit is to book a tour through one of the outfits in town. Tours last a full day and include two to three hours of hiking on the island with a naturalist guide, a boxed lunch, and a refreshing dip for snorkeling before returning to the mainland.
- Ecuadorians flock to the coast during major festivals, particularly Carnaval. If you’re planning to visit during a holiday, make sure to book your transportation and accommodations ahead of time.
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Have you visited Isla de la Plata? What was your experience?
Have you ever returned to a place to find it completely changed? How so?
This post was originally published on May 15, 2018, and last updated on May 15, 2021.
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