I broke this weekend trip up into steps. I’m nearly 90% sure that staying at a Workaway for two weeks, with an American family, speaking English put me back in my comfortable little bubble—making it difficult to get back into the explorer mindset. But an internal conversation and a few texts from Mom later, I was ready to see and experience something new. Step 1: Leave the finca. Step 2: Get from Sinchal to Valdivia. Step 3: Valdivia to Puerto Lopez. Step 4: Find a hostel for the night.
Obviously after doing a bit of research before hand, I had some hostels in mind, and stopped by the first one I recognized, Piedra del Mar. At $15 a night, I not only had the entire dorm room to myself, but the entire hostel. After arriving and getting settled, I walked around town and along the beach, running into the local fisherman bringing in their catch of the day. Pelicans were swarming the area and multi-colored tents housed everything from long red fish to swordfish. I stopped to talk to two guys who I learned buy from the fisherman and then sell in the market to locals. They do this every day, both morning and afternoon.
Puerto Lopez is the main jumping off point for Isla de la Plata, also known as “The Poor Man’s Galapagos.” This was the main attraction for me as well, so I ventured to my private hostel to get a tour booked for the next morning. After the owner shared his life story with me, I confirmed my booking for 9:30 a.m. A sleepless night later, I ate the Americano breakfast included in my stay before being picked up by some tour guide who I then followed to meet the rest of my group. We payed $1 on top of the $35 tour to simply embark on the boat via the pier, where we went shoeless after dumping them into a giant sack.
The hour and 20 minute ride to the island was quite treacherous. A fellow tourist got sick off the back and I was feeling a little off as we rocked and rolled throughout the strong waves. There were 15 of us on the tour, a mix of Canadians, French, Swiss, Ecuadorian and the lone American. After receiving a slice of banana bread and a banana (it IS the biggest export here), we looked overboard to see some new companions. A handful of turtles and joined our adventure and were swimming along the sides looking for some loving. The water was clear enough to see the details on their shells and smaller fish circling below.
The group split up into English and Spanish once we got onto the shore of Isla de la Plata. I opted for the Spanish group because I had missed hearing and speaking the language while staying on the finca and because it added a level of authentic-ness to the already touristy experience. We walked 15 minutes to a shelter where the group decided which path we wanted to take: highlands with two kinds of animals, the coastal route with panoramic views or the more strenuous route. Group consensus? Animals for the win. It was prime time to see the blue footed boobies nesting, and we saw nearly 20 birds watching over their young or soon-to-be-hatched young during our short hike. Nature is neat.
Lathered up with sunscreen, we embarked the boat and received our “box lunch” which consisted of a slice of watermelon, pineapple and two croissant sandwiches (emphasis on the croissant part). Up next was snorkeling. I already conquered a fear in Banos, Ecuador by jumping off a bridge, and snorkeling was another one on my list. I remember going on a trip to Key West. My parents, aunt, uncle and cousin gladly participated in the quick trip out to the middle of the ocean to snorkel. I gladly opted for the drier, less terrifying experience on the boat. But not now. Not here. I suited up, took a few deep breaths and jumped in. Luckily we were close to the shore, and not in a vast wasteland, to give me some added comfort. I also tagged along with a couple from Canada who spoke English and was pre-warned about my fears. And you know what? I survived. I saw an underwater world that I never would have been exposed to if I hadn’t made that jump.
It’s funny how a shared experience can form a quick relationship. While drying off, I began to chat it up with Lee. She was a Canadian who spoke English, semi-retired, traveling in search of a snowbird spot, learning Spanish and doing a homestay. She had been in Puerto Lopez for a week—giving her brain a break from the new language—and convinced to stay in Puerto Lopez for the remainder of my time. Getting back to Puerto Lopez, I followed her to the hostel she had occupied for the last week: Hostel Maxima. The biggest perk compared to my one from the night before? $10 for a private room. Sold. I checked in and set up camp before a few other tourees and their fellow French-speaking friends for a beer and dinner. I was lost in translation, but it ended up to be good conversation and a good night.
Day 2: Agua Blanca & Playa de Los Frailes
Bart was both on the island tour and at dinner. We got to talking and decided to go to Agua Blanca and Playa de Los Frailes the next day together. I actually first heard about Agua Blanca—a nearby community and archaeological area within Machalilla National Park—from the hostel owner on Friday, then from Lee, so figured it was worth the trip. We decided to meet at 8:30 a.m., so I woke up the next morning, took a quick shower, grabbed a few items for breakfast and lunch at a local fruit stand and supermarket and met Bart for our adventure. Little did we know that our next steps would be completely off base and give us insight into what NOT to do. Flagging down a motorbike (think tuk-tuk) from the city center, we went to the Puerto Lopez terminal to hop on a bus to Agua Blanca. Bart went to Los Frailes a few days before, so he knew the route. Little did we know that we had to walk three miles from the Agua Blanca park entrance to the museum. Hard pass. So we discussed our options and unfortunately decided to return back to the city center to grab a taxi. So back on the bus, back on the motorbike and $2 lost later, we were back where we started. We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to the museum and return a few hours later to pick us back up. I let Bart do the talking and we were eventually on our way.
The museum at Agua Blanca is tiny, but includes some archaeological pieces that date back to about 2600 A.D. The pre-Colombian community was discovered in 1979 and still serves as a small functioning community. For $5 each we received a private tour of the museum and a guide for a small hike. We ended at a sulfur pond where Bart jumped in for a swim and walked to a less-than-exciting mirador (look out). The whole experience was probably a 3 out of 10, but was still interesting to see.
The Playas de Los Frailes, known as the best beach in Ecuador, is on the same northern track as Agua Blanca, so we decided to head straight there. We were an hour early for our taxi pick-up time so we instead took a motortaxi to the park entrance and then hitchhiked to the beach entrance. It was another $1 each for a motortaxi from the entrance to the beach itself and we were finally there. Since it was Sunday, families were out and about enjoying the weekend and weather. Bart and I split up for a bit and I walked to a much better mirador and other beach. It was a relaxing way to end a great weekend. I’m glad I sucked up my dreary feelings on Friday and ventured back out into the unkown.