Walks around Puerto López

Isla de la Plata

Isla de la Plata is an uninhabited island in Machalilla National Park with an interesting history; legend has it that Sir Francis Drake hid a large quantity of silver here that he had plundered from Spanish galleons. Today it is a reserve for the vegetation of the dry tropical forest and the large colonies of sea-birds that nest here; many guidebooks refer to it as a mini-Galapagos.

You can only visit it by joining a tour; thus we found ourselves on a fast motorboat with 10 others, speeding across the grey waters of the Pacific under the grey Humboldt sky towards the island, 38km away. The big bonus of this 1½ hour trip was the chance to spot the humpback whales that migrate here from Antarctica to breed at this time of year. They did not disappoint and several pods of up to six of these magnificent creatures cruised by, giving a display of tail-slapping, fin-waving, spouting behaviour; everything except the big leap.

A pod of humpback whales passes by on the way to Isla de la Plata

Calm waters of Bahia Drake

Reaching the island, we disembarked in the still waters of Bahia Drake, before heading off with a National Park guide on the Sendero Punta Escalera. The track led up a valley to a saddle that splits the island giving great views of its coastline and arid landscape.

From here, it turned east, leading us past colonies of boobies (both masked and blue-footed), frigate-birds and a small cliff-top colony of tropic-birds. It was great to be able to watch these magnificent seabirds at such close quarters, as they carried on their courtship, breeding and social behaviours, impervious to our presence.

A pair of masked boobies

La Plata cliffscape

Frigate birds roosting on the island

The iconic blue-footed booby

Male frigate with an inflated opinion of itself

From the high point, we spotted more whales way offshore, including one that performed a series of impressive, if distant, breaches. We descended the dry hillside, covered in cacti and bare-branched deciduous trees and shrubs to follow the rugged southern coastline of the island, eventually returning back to the saddle and starting point.


The rugged southern coastline of Isla de la Plata


As a second bonus, the boat anchored at a small reef in the sheltered part of Bahia Drake, where we were able to do a bit snorkelling amongst the many species of brightly coloured tropical fish that called this spot home. Finally, with the sun setting (or just the greyness getting darker) we headed back for another fast boat ride, bouncing across the big Pacific swells, to Puerto López. Our visit to Isla de la Plata was definitely one of the highlights of our time in this area.

Playa los Frailes

Path through the dry and leafless coastal scrub

With its long gentle curve of soft pale sand, Los Frailes is the most beautiful beach in Machalilla National Park. We walked to it via a 5km self-guided track that led through tropical dry forest and impressive coastal scenery; fine sandy beaches, curious rock formations and islets, unspoilt shore and lovely seascapes.

La Playita

Blue footed boobies in flight

The track climbed gently at first, passing through the dry skeletal forms of the deciduous tropical shrubs and cacti; a curiously silent habitat where no birds sang, just the odd lizard, aestivating giant snail or termite nest.

Soon, we arrived at a small clifftop clearing, from where we watched seabirds flying by and looked out across to the rocky Islote Sucre and distant village of Machalilla. From the lookout, the track descended to La Playita, a small sandy cove with orange-coloured cliffs on either side - a great place for a break and explore.

A frigate bird soars by


Leaving La Playita, we crossed a saddle that opened out to superb views of the coastline to the south, before dropping down to La Tortuiga, a beautiful beach, split by a large rock platform that almost connects to the rocky islet of Horno de Pan.

From here we could see a viewing platform on the clifftop to the south, where we soon found ourselves, after wandering down the sandy beach and climbing up through deciduous aromatic Palo Santo trees (used for incense).


Tortuiga Beach and the Horno de Pan

Palo Santo (sandalwood) trees

The views were superb: back north over La Tortuiga, its rocky headland and the distant Sucre Islet, and south across the dry forest to the long white curve of Los Frailes, backed by the hills of the coastal hinterland.

View across Islota Sucre to El Rocio

Looking across the deciduous coastal forest to Las Frailes

A short descent brought us out on to the northern end of Los Frailes. We wandered the length of its smooth pale sand to the cliffs, rock ledges and coves at its southern end, before returning to the beach carpark and catching a taximoto home to Puerto Lopez.

At the southern end of Los Frailes

The pale sands of Los Frailes Beach

Petrel on the beach

It had been one of the few sunny days in our 8-week stay, courtesy of the Humboldt current and the clouds it generates at this time of year. A walk to los Frailes was a good way to take advantage of it.

Sendero El Rocío

The El Rocío Nature Trail was designed by local landholders as means of community livelihood and we were shown this track by one of the local guides to gather information on Machalilla National Park to develop the English version of the local tourist website.

The track first climbed up through a small cultivated area with rows of agave and fruit trees, rich in birdlife, before emerging at the top of a ridge and the Mirador El Ebano. From here we had expansive views northwards along the coastline, before strolling along the ridge through the dry tropical forest, one of the world's most endangered forest types. Along the way we passed a 300 year-old barbasco, the oldest tree in the National Park.

Land iguana on the cliff side

We followed the ridgeline track to a second viewpoint at Punta Palo Santo, amongst the aromatic trees of the same name. Seabirds and vultures soared below as we looked down onto an impressive rock shelf, while a large iguana basked in the sun on the steeply-sloping ochre coloured cliff face.

More coastline views opened up in both directions. From the lookout the track descended a steep and arid quebrada to bring us to the pink-tinted sand of secluded Playa Rosada, set beneath an impressive orange cliff.

Pieces of fossilised wood from Punta Canoa

Walking through the coastal forest

Looking down the ochre cliffs to the pink-tinted sand of Playa Rosada

Wave-sculpted rocks near Playa Rosada

Crabs scurried away as we wandered around to Punto Canoa, exploring the rock platforms and curious geology of the point, where sedimentary, metamorphic, igneous and conglomerate rocks of many colours co-occur and fossilised coral and wood can be found. Just around the point, high on the cliffs, we could watch a nesting colony of brown pelicans.

Blue rock crab

Rock platorm at Punta Canoa

Brown pelicans in flight

As the tide was on the low side, we were able to pick our way around the rocks and reefs at the base of the wind-carved orange-coloured sandstone cliffs to visit more secluded coves and sea-caves, before climbing up a cleft in the cliffs.

On another pinkish sand beach

Sea-cave beneath Punta Palo Santo

The ochre cliffs of El Sombrerito

Climbing back up the cliffs

The track then joined part of the El Sombrerito Trail heading up from the south. Turning inland, we once again wandered back through more dry tropical forest to the interpretation centre. Here the forest had received more rain than at Los Frailes; many shrubs had retained their leaves while a dense mat of herbs grew beneath them to create a habitat rich in flowers, birds and insect life.

Overall, the track was only a bit over 5km long, but included some of the best coastal scenery in the Machalilla National Park, combining rocky shorelines with rich coastal scrub. It complemented the inland forested parts of the Park perfectly.

Bola de Oro

The cloud forest of San Sebastian

The humid tropical forest of San Sebastien, home to abundant wildlife and superb vegetation, lies in the heart of Machalilla National Park. I was lucky enough to join an American couple, Jack and Connie, on a horse-ride into this world of steep and muddy cloud forest, again to gather information for the website development. It promised to be interesting, if for no other reason than that I had not spent more than 5 minutes on a horse in my entire life.

We were driven 10km inland from Puerto López to the trailhead at Rio Blanco in the back of a pickup truck, where our guide, horses and gumboots were waiting. With little ado and less instruction we set off, our newfound equine friends carrying us along the trail that led out of the village and followed the Rio Blanco, with its moss-covered boulders, crossing several small side-streams on the way.

The novice rider heads off (thanks Connie!)

The track was shaded by tall trees and clumps of giant bamboo, the trees colonised by different bromeliads which occasionally sported pink or red flower spikes. Our guide pointed out the tagua palms, whose nuts are the source of "vegetable ivory" carvings and provide an important source of income for the local community, as well as giving us a chance to sample some of the native fruits of the forest.

Jack and Connie on their trusty steeds

Bromeliad in bloom

Heliconia flower

Tagua palms

So now you know where oranges come from

After about an hour, the trail headed steeply upwards into the splendid cloud forest, steeped in mists, with its lichen- and epiphyte-covered tree trunks. The track became increasingly muddy as we entered this everdamp and misty world. I alternated between horseback and walking, having discovered that it was virtually impossible to take photos with the rocking of a horse in motion.

Different foliage of the cloud forest

Multicoloured bromeliad rosette

This is the territory of howler and capuchin monkeys, and we were lucky enough to see both species; the cappuchin but briefly as a group scurried through the dimly lit trees, while we had the good fortune to stop for twenty minutes to watch the antics of a group of howler monkeys, the dominant male of which sat high in the bromeliad-lined branches and hooted his derision in our general direction. The trail climbed up to Bola de Oro, at 800m the highest point in the park, before following a long narrow ridge back down out of the cloud forest into tropical humid forest, with its beautiful bromeliads, before once again returning to Rio Blanco.

Riding through the mists of the cloud forest

The howler monkey looked disdainfully at us....

... before giving voice to his feelings

A steep path down

Thanks Connie and Jack for allowing me to join you on your ride and for your pleasant company. It was an interesting introduction to horseback riding, which I enjoyed despite the aches in the usual places and the mud covered clothes, though I am still not certain that horse-riding 1A would include a descent of a steep and muddy track in dense vegetation in any other part of the world.