Puerto Lopez, Ecuador - The western slope of the Andes is so rugged and steep that the road to the western lowlands of Ecuador is built on ledges protruding from the mountainsides. Looking down from the bus window through the clouds to the valley below, I feel like I'm in an airplane.
Soon everything changes. From the cool highlands, the bus enters the lush tropical foothills with their abundant banana, coffee and cacao plantations. Then we turn north along the Pacific coast through a barren, scrubby desert, past empty beaches and ramshackle fishing villages. Fishermen unload their catch and gut the fish right on the shore while frigate birds and vultures grab the scraps.
Eventually, we reach the busy fishing village of Puerto Lopez. My partner and I take a tricycle rickshaw to Hosteria Mandala, a maze of thatched-roofed bamboo cabanas set in a luxuriant garden right on the beach. Paths lead through shoulder-high thickets of hibiscus, bird of paradise and bougainvillea to cabins with names like Tortoise, Dolphin and Albatross.
In this paradise I'm tempted to while away the hours in a hammock on the porch. But my favourite sport beckons on the sea and the beach - people-watching. Fishermen do battle with the dive-bombing birds, children swing in hammocks strung between palm trees, and Ecuadorian vacationers get mummified in wet sand.
Next day we join a tour via speedboat to the Isla de la Plata. The 40-kilometre ride takes about an hour at splashing speed. Humpback whales come to this part of the Pacific to mate between mid-June and early October, but this is April. In the hazy distance we spot two arching grey forms on the water's surface. Some party animals just can't wait for the bar to open.
After our unscheduled whale-spotting, we stop at a coral reef to snorkel, encircled by schools of yellow and blue fish doing Esther Williams routines.
Known as the poor person's Galapagos, Isla de la Plata is aswarm with nesting colonies of seabirds: frigate birds, gulls, terns, petrels, albatrosses, cormorants, pelicans. The uninhabited island's name, which means Silver Island, comes from the glitter of guano shining in the sun.
From the boat landing, 200 steep steps take us halfway up the barren cliffs. We've come to this dry, rugged piece of rock in the Pacific Ocean for a three-hour trek around the 3.5-kilometre Sendero Machete trail. Though spectacularly scenic, the trail is rough - you need good footwear, plenty of water, sunscreen and a large umbrella. The odd cactus and thorny skeletons of hibernating loofah vines provide the only shade. Desiccated loofahs the size of hens' eggs litter the trail. Vistas of blue waves crashing against white rocks open before us. Below, the aquamarine ocean laps at coves and bays.
The air's abuzz with the squawk and chatter of swooping flocks. At last, exhausted, sunburned and semi-dehydrated, we round the top of the cliff and are finally introduced to the island's most famous residents, the blue-footed boobies.
Three species of boobies live on Isla de la Plata: blue-footed, red-footed and masked. Blue-footed boobies really do have blue feet, which they lift and kick in a bizarre, slow dance during courtship displays. These entertaining antics and their approachable disposition make boobies very popular with visitors.
The brazen birds make their nests in plain sight under the scorching sun. Males and females take turns shading and protecting the eggs with their own bodies. The fluffy hatchlings can devour enormous quantities of regurgitated fish brought back by their parents from long flights out to sea. It's an arduous task, so a booby family can only raise one gluttonous chick at a time. To ensure its survival, the first hatched gets all the attention.
Then the game of booby football begins. The unhatched eggs get the blue boot right over the cliff.