Parque Nacional Manchalilla

Last week we took a day trip to Isla de la Plata, which is part of Manchalilla National Park, about 40km from Puerto Lopez by boat. It’s nickname “the poor man’s Galapagos” is ridiculously inaccurate because the habitat and geology are not similar. But, hey, $40 for a day trip to the Isla instead of over $1000 for 5 days on Galapagos better suits our budget! We’ve also heard that it’s worth going for the even more expensive Galapagos tours because the ‘cheaper’ tours might be a bit of a rip-off.

So, Isla de la Plata it is…It got its name in the 1500’s from a story that Sir Francis Drake hid some silver treasure here. The ‘plata’ or silver may have been nicked from a Spanish boat nicknamed Cacafuego (that’s Shitfire to us English speakers!). These days the Isla is a nature reserve and its primary attractions are Booby and Frigate birds, as well as the whales who come to feed and breed off the island between June and September. It’s supposed to be the rainy season here, but there is no way you’d know it! Our guide said it had rained less this year, which the Boobies love. We asked if there were ever forest or scrub fires on the island, to which he replied no, and then stressed that preventing fires was one of the main reasons tours to the island were tightly controlled.

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The Blue Footed Boobies seem to be hiding under almost every shrub on the island or sometimes just sitting in the middle of the path, minding their eggs. The eggs take about 45 days to hatch so the parents take turns leaving the nest to go fishing. Our guide told us that the blue colour of the Boobies’ feet comes from eating sardines and if they switch to squid, their feet turn red! This Booby’s nest is marked by guano and the island is covered in the stuff, another possible reason for being named Silver Island. What a romantic interpretation of bird shit…

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Frigate birds nest in the trees of the island. Our guide told us that their small feet make it difficult to land on water or solid ground. When we’d first noticed large flocks of these birds harassing the mainland fishermen of Puerto Lopez, they reminded me of pterodactyls. Up close, they aren’t so threatening: the young ones have white heads, while the adult males are almost completely black, except during mating season when they inflate a red pouch at the top of their chest. Luckily for the Boobies, the Frigates are pretty uninterested in their fellow feathered friends; it’s vultures and rats that go after baby Boobies and Booby eggs. It seems that controlling the rat population is a big problem for the park wardens. They have managed to eradicate the cat population (originally brought to the island by humans trying to address the rat problem).

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Back on the boat for some much-needed lunch, the guides managed to tempt some tortoises to our boat by tossing various bits of pineapple and watermelon into the sea.

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We were also lucky enough to go snorkeling in one of the island’s small coves-there was an amazing array of sea life, including wrays and sharks and many multicoloured fish. The water was warm and clear-gorgeous! Really amazing…until one of us got stung by several very small jellyfish…

We hoped to see some dolphins on the boat trip back to the mainland, but no luck. Still, a really great day – highly recommended!

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