Some 37km out to sea from Puerto López, and reached using one of the tour companies there, Isla de la Plata is a small, scrubby island of just eight square kilometres, once the ceremonial centre of the Bahía culture (500 BC to 650 AD). Its name comes from the legend that the English explorer Sir Francis Drake buried a chestful of silver here in the sixteenth century – never discovered, of course. Today, the island’s fame derives more from its large population of marine birds, which are relatively fearless and allow close observation, attracting many visitors and giving it the sobriquet of “poor man’s Galápagos”. Yet this hackneyed phrase doesn’t do the island justice; it’s the only place in Ecuador – including the Galápagos – where blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies are found together.
From the landing point in Bahía Drake, two circular footpaths lead around the island, each taking three to four hours to complete, including time spent watching the birds and listening to the tour guide’s commentary. The most numerous bird species on the island is the blue-footed booby, though you can also see frigatebirds, red-billed tropicbirds and waved albatrosses (breeding season April–Oct), as well as sea lions, which are colonizing the island in small numbers. Visits usually include some snorkelling, which provides a glimpse of a fabulous array of colourful fish. You might also spot dolphins and manta rays on the boat ride, as well as humpback whales (June–Sept).