Since the Galápagos Islands’ arrival into the ranks of tourist must-sees and eco-destinations in the 1960s, a number of “poor man’s” alternatives have sprung up. Ecuador, Peru and Chile all boast a budget version of the famous isles, each in turn offering a number of different animals to photograph, depending on your wildlife leanings. We of course wanted to see them all: blue-footed boobies, penguins, sea lions, turtles… Being the third of June, we were officially three days into Ecuador’s whale season. We just hoped they’d received the memo.
From the busy port village of Puerto Lopez, which is trying to rapidly accommodate the growing number of tourists attracted by the idea of the poor man’s Galápagos, we booked a tour out to Isla de la Plata for a mere $40. Our guide was an eccentric elderly Ecuadorian, kitted out in what seemed to be an 18th century explorer’s outfit. He was very excited to show us the island, even performing the mating dance of the blue-footed booby for our educational benefit. For those who have not yet experienced this, here is a YouTube link – the music is perfect. As we walked around the island, we were astounded by just how close we could get to the birds. They have no fear of humans, and stand quietly by the path, observing you curiously as you photograph them.
After three hours spent wandering the island in their company, we were still utterly bemused by these birds. They are simultaneously beautiful and ridiculous, curious and disdainful, intelligent and silly, awkward and graceful. Completely alien, yet the constrast of characters makes them strangely human at times. They’ve been a source of fascination and amusement for many years. And their name surely can’t hurt their popularity either.
We boarded the boat and spent the next hour watching the turtles as they came to feast on the leftovers of our sandwiches and snorkelling among the ‘Nemos’. Two whales had indeed received the memo, sending up a jet of water and performing a perfect back flip respectively. All in all, a fantastic day, ending with a seafood platter, fried plantain and passion fruit daiquiris on the beach. Ecuador is proving to be a wonderful country.
Two weeks later, in Peru, we awoke at the painfully early 5.30 am in order to visit the Islas Ballestras. The promise of penguins was all that dragged us from our beds. Unfortunately the islands were a disappointment, three penguins and two sea lions seen from a distance cannot compare with walking alongside boobies. However much I love penguins. I suppose a trip to Patagonia and Antarctica will just have to be planned…