On the Origin of Species

Galapgos turtle.

Entry #50   •   14th of Agust, 2015 Entry translated by  Isabeau Prémont-Schwarz.
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No, no, I did not go to the Galapagos Islands, but not for lack of wanting. I had an alternative plan however, to go to the Isla de la Platawhich is nicknamed the Galapagos Island of the poor. Finally, though I did not go there either. When I boarded the boat at Puerto Lopez, I thought we were heading off to the Isla de Salango which I had personally named the Isla de la Plata for people in a hurry (and therefore, by transitivity, the Galapagos Island of poor people in a hurry), but yet again my hopes were dashed....

Map of the national park of Machalilla where are situated the Isla de la Plata and the Isla de Salango.

Plan A - Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands owe a great part of their fame to the fauna which lives on them. Darwin's finches (geospizinae), sea turles (chelonioidea), tortoises (chelonoidis), iguanas (iguanidae), sea lions (zalophus wollebaeki) ... The liste could go on for a long time. But the Galapagos Island also exhibit a mild climate all year long and beaches with deep blue waters. And as a bonus, without it having been explicitly mentioned, we know that it is also the birthplace of Tao in the animated series The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

Why didn't I go? The cost. Everything is much too expensive over there. Transportation is expensive, food is expensive, accommodation is expensive, the entrance price to the park is unaffordable. Ok, it's true, for the food, it is not paying double or even three times the price for rice, pasta, or bread for 4 to 5 days which would have overburdened my budget. As for accommodation, I could have tried to find something on couchsurfing. But trying to find a host only a few days in advance can be very risky, and I didn't want to bring my tent so as to travel light. As for transportation, if we had planned it a bit in advance, I am told that it is possible to find a return flight from Quito or Guayaquil for $200. But because of the way I travel, I cannot so readily plan "a bit it advance?". In the time window which worked for me, the flights were all more than $400. And finally, the entrance to the park: $100 for foreigners (it is $6 for Ecuadorians). Actually it is worse than that, it isn't $100 but US$ 100 (since 2000, the US dollar has replaced the sucre as the official currency in Ecuador).

Plan B - Isla de la Plata

Isla de la Plata is located in the Machalilla National Park, pressed against the Ecuadorian coast. Many emblematic species from the Galapagos Islands also live there (many Blue-footed boobies (sula nebouxii) amongst them), and going there is much cheaper than going to the famous Galapagos ($20 to $30 by boat from Puerto Lopez). This is why the island has been nicked-named the Galapagos of the poor. Not all species from the Galapagos are present there however, the Galapagos giant tortoises are absent for example, but five individuals can be seen (for free) in the gardens of the Escuala Supérior Politécnica del Litoral in Guayaquil. I know that it is not the same as seeing them in their natural environment but ... I also don't think that there are any Marine iguanas (amblyrhynchus cristatus) in Isla de la Plata but, among us, are they really much more interesting than their terrestrial cousins who are teaming on the continent? No finches with their characteristic beaks either. So, indeed, nothing can really replace a trip to the Galapagos, but the idea of living a somewhat similar experience, even if not as grand, for $500 less, pleased me. On top of that, it was the migration season of the Humpback whale (megaptera novaeangliae) and they swim by the island at that time.

    Top: Conversation with a Galapagos giant turtoise in the gardens of ESPOL in Guayaquil.

City iguana (left) seen in a park in Guayaquil and a Field Iguana (right) seen on the highway on my way to Guayaquil.

Plan C - Isla-de-Salango

To go to Isla de la Plata, you must take the boat from Puerto-Lopez. I didn't know about Isla de la Plata. It is when I was in Santo Domingo that a Colombian couchsurfer told me about it (we were both staying at the same place). However, I had already planned my way to Guayaquil and I had even found my accommodation already. And my path did not go through Puerto-Lopez. Of course, a plan is made to be changed when necessary, but it seemed simpler to simply go along with my old plan to go to Guayaquil, and then make a return trip from there by bus to Puerto-Lopez.

Half-way to Puerto-Lopez from Guayaquil, a miserable man in his mid forties and his 19 year old wife entered the bus. They came and sat not too far away from me at the back of the bus. We talked a little. They wanted to bring along on a yacht to go to Isla de la Plata. I told them I would think about it, but my mind was already made. I did not have much trust in these two people, and it didn't help when they, not very subtly, started to smoke marijuana and snort cocaine. I was pretty much stuck with them until the end of the trip. On a bike you are never stuck in such a situation. They were also trying to sell some crafts that the man made without too much success. I made the mistake of telling them my first name. In five minutes, the man then braided a bracelet out of colourful threads with Vicente written on it. They wanted to sell it to me for $5! I don't wear bracelets, and if I were ever to wear one, it would definitely not have my name on it. But, ok, thinking it would buy peace, I gave them $5. That didn't really work. Rather they seemed to think that the pigeon they had caught hadn't yet been totally plucked.

Once arrived at the Puerto-Lopez bus station, I needed to go to the port. The simplest way to do that is to take a mototaxi (es). My two new friends were waiting for me and invited me to join them in their mototaxi. There is space for three people in such a vehicle. I rapidly turned to a tourist agent who was close by. We took the mototaxi together. On the way he suggested me an excursion to Isla Salango. It is closer than Isla de la Plata he said and it has pretty much the same species as Isla de la Plata. It seemed to me that I would then be seeing a copy of a copy of the Galapagos Islands, it starts to be far from the original, but I really didn't want to end up falling back with my bus companions and so I accepted his offer.

Plan D - Whale Excursion

I paid $25 thinking that we would be going to Isla de Salango and that we would go scuba diving amongst the sea turtles and exotic fish. Many people had told me that $25 was the price to go to Isla de la Plata, so the tourist agent had charged me quite a bit. And in the end, we didn't even go scuba diving, we only went along the coast of the island by boat without ever getting off ... We did see some Blue-footed boobies but the excursion consisted mostly in observing the whales. It was interesting, but to see humpbacked whales I could have gone to the Saguenay, I didn't need to go all the way to South America. At least I got to see a big male humpack whale leap out of the water (seeing such a huge animal of 40 tonnes jump like that is very impressive, believe me). Coming back to the beach on the continent I thought of staying the night in Puerto-Lopez to go the next morning to Isla de la Plata, but taking into consideration the price, the time, and especially the possibility of again encountering those two swindlers, I decided that it was most likely not worth it (yes, these two people will have ruined this part of my trip).

Left: : A whale and its baby. Centre: The arch of Isla de Salango. Right: Une colonie de fous-à-pieds-bleus. VA colony of Blue-footed boobies. To see the whales and the boobies was definitely more interesting than what it seems from the photos (their feet are really an intense blue).


Addendum: In El-Ñuro (es) in Peru, I would finally get the chance to swim with sea turtles (and a very lovely Argentinian).