It takes 90 minutes to cruise 23 miles across the choppy Pacific Ocean, the small boat full of tourists bumping over the rolling waves.
“Don’t go to the bathroom if you feel sick,” the tour guide, Alegria, warns the group as Ecuador’s coastline vanishes from view. “You’ll never come out. Go to the back of the boat.”
A group of Dutch college girls on holiday look squeamishly at one another. They are in prime position—some of them soaking in the sun next to the double engines, others dozing off on each other’s shoulders.
The boat speeds along, slowing only when its destination comes into view: a looming, rocky land mass surrounded by shimmering sea and circled by birds overhead.
“Welcome to Isla de la Plata,” Alegria announces.
Isla de la Plata—nicknamed “The Poor Man’s Galapagos”—is 2 square miles of rock, greenery and a vast variety of wildlife, all of which can be found on the pricier, volcanic Galapagos Islands, 685 miles and thousands of dollars westward.
Located on the border of the continental shelf, Isla de la Plata is one of two large islands within the Machalilla National Park, the country’s largest protected coastal area that also includes beaches, fog forest, dry forest, smaller islands and Isla de la Plata’s sister island, Salango. Established in 1979, the park encompasses 232 square miles, 77 of which are ocean.
Two miles off the coast of Isla de la Plata is protected in all directions, though people who were born in Puerto López—a port village buzzing with fishermen and the home base for all day trips around the national park—solely have the right to visit the island and fish, or even sleep overnight, if they so choose.
Some may even be tempted to look for the centuries-old horde of silver allegedly hidden by English pirate Sir Francis Drake. As legend has it, he landed on the island after attacking a Spanish galleon in order to bury his treasure—though none has ever been found, supposedly.
“The island is the real treasure,” one of the tourists from the group remarks. Half of the group nods, the rest roll their eyes.
The more likely explanation behind the name Isla de la Plata, or “Silver Island,” is thanks to the birdlife—or, rather, the large deposits of guano that stain the island’s dark cliffs. Apparently, it illuminates in the moonlight, once helping sailors navigate the ocean in the nights of yore.
A deceptively steep set of stairs leads all tour groups to the first main plateau of the island roughly 260 feet above sea level—if it is even open at all.
“The island can be closed for years at a time,” Alegria explains. “When the rain is very heavy, the trail becomes a river and there are mudslides.”
From 26 stories up, the ocean is a blue ombré, shifting from cyan to sapphire to periwinkle. This is thanks to Isla de la Plata’s unique positioning on the edge of the continental shelf, where the depth is nearly 100 feet. Just past it, the ocean floor plunges to a staggering 9,800 feet.
In March, it is not prime breeding season for much of the wildlife on or around Isla de la Plata, including the seabirds and humpback whales, Alegria says. “Because of El Niño coming from the north, the water in the ocean is warm and not rich in nutrients and fish. In a few months, the current from Antarctica surrounds the island with nutrients and plankton, which is what attracts the whales and dolphins and rays during the dry season, from July to September.”
The most famous and sought-after bird on the island is, easily, the blue-footed booby. Nearly one half of all breeding pairs nest on the Galapagos Islands, but a healthy population also lives on Isla de la Plata.
During the wet season, the blue-footed boobies found on the island are usually juveniles and adults feeding their young. Nesting is reserved for the dry season.
While the birds lay three eggs at a time, it is uncommon for all of the chicks to survive because the eggs that are laid first hatch first, often resulting in growth inequality and size disparity between siblings.
The incubation period is 1½ months, followed by a three- to four-month period when the strongest chicks learn how to fly. In another three to for months, they will be able to fish, rendering them independent from their parents.
The name “booby” derives from the Spanish word “bobo,” which translates to “stupid,” “fool,” or “clown”—referring to the species’ clumsy nature and unwise fearlessness of humans. As seen by visitors to the island, the blue-footed boobies have no problem getting close, waddling awkwardly up to tourists with their signature webbed feet in search of food.
Without fresh fish, their blue feet—which also indicate sexual maturity—will fade, due to a reduction in lipids and lipoproteins from their diet that absorb and transport carotenoid pigments responsible for the blue color.
Blue-footed boobies live symbiotically with many species of seabirds, including waved albatrosses and frigate birds, which can be found in their respective colonies. The latter are famous for inflating their throats into vivid red pouches in order to attract a mate.
While Machalilla National Park is also home to armadillos and two species of monkeys, the only mammals found on Isla de la Plata are rats, Alegria reports. Rangers plant poison in white cylindrical tubes to control their population throughout the island, and they assure it does not harm the other creatures of Isla de la Plata.
Deforestation, commercial fishing and poaching have wreaked havoc on the national park—and it has had a devastating affect on certain populations of wildlife. Green turtles are endangered due to incidental catch in fisheries, habitat loss and marine garbage. They spend most of their lives traveling in the ocean, and the only time they come to land is to lay their eggs on the same beaches they were born—Isla de la Plata being one of the most important nesting areas in Ecuador for this species.
The ecological impact of the tourist industry has also taken its toll, Alegria notes, emphasizing that no garbage is to be left on the island—and she doesn’t dare bring lunch on shore.
The only littering she does is toss watermelon rinds overboard, attracting a pair of green sea turtles looking for a snack.
All photos edited with Snapseed.
- blue-footed booby
- continental shelf
- frigate birds
- galapagos islands
- green turtles
- Isla de la plata
- machalilla national park
- pacific ocean
- poor man’s Galapagos
- Puerto López
- silver island
- sir francis drake