Sarah Gilbert has a close encounter of the barnacled kind en route to an island where the bird life rivals the Galapagos.
A 40-TONNE, barnacle-speckled humpback whale glided underneath our small craft like an enormous shadow. I clung to a slippery rail while the boat bucked and hopped on the steel-blue Pacific waves. "Don't worry," our captain said, "they just like to scratch their backs against the hull."
From June to September, whale sightings – if not always as close as ours – are virtually guaranteed off the coast of Ecuador's Manabi province. I'd set sail just half an hour earlier from the dusty port town of Puerto Lopez, the base for trips around Machalilla National Park, the country's largest protected coastal area.
It was another bumpy hour to Isla de la Plata, or Silver Island. Some say the uninhabited island derives its name from the centuries-old buried treasure of Sir Francis Drake; others that "silver" refers to the large deposits of guano that stain its cliffs. It has also been christened the poor man's Galapagos by the likes of Lonely Planet and Frommer's for its abundance of marine bird life.
After negotiating the steep path to the island's central plateau, I could understand why. Seemingly fearless blue-footed boobies padded inquisitively alongside us in their striking footwear. We crept past nesting waved albatrosses while frigate birds perched in the trees like strange fruit, the males' vivid red throats inflated to attract mates.
Hugo from the Netherlands – on his first trip to Ecuador since he was a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands almost 30 years before – was entranced. As we watched a blue-footed booby trying to placate its hungry chick, I asked him how it measured up. "If you'd brought me here blindfolded, I would say we were definitely on the islands. Definitely."
Back in Puerto Lopez, fishermen dragged ashore their nets under siege from frigate birds. Primary-coloured taxi motos plied their trade along the malecon and shrimps were sold from ramshackle wooden stalls. It was tempting to linger over a delicious ceviche, washed down with beer, but I, too, was making a return journey to the pioneering ecolodge Alandaluz, a 15-minute drive along the coast.
It was 15 years since I'd first visited Alandaluz. Then it was a backpackers' word-of-mouth find, built from bamboo and palm thatch — the kind of place you went for a couple of days and stayed for a couple of weeks. I slept alfresco in a hammock, lulled by the roar of the ocean. But in 1997, a storm flattened the lodge. Everything had to be rebuilt, this time using a sturdier combination of local stone and plaster as well as bamboo. Now there's a swimming pool, a small shop selling local crafts and the chance to ride bikes and horses and go diving and kayaking.
What hasn't changed is the tranquil setting, the huge shell-strewn beach and the commitment to sustainability – from a full recycling program to bio-architecture and an organic garden.
The menu is more sophisticated today – I enjoyed viudo, a medley of fish, shrimp and squid, smothered in a rich sauce of peanuts, coconut and spices – but it's still home-grown or sourced locally. Vitally, the expanding project – including the nearby Cantalapiedra wildlife refuge, an area of pristine rainforest up the Ayampe River – has created jobs for the surrounding communities.
I'd barely left the beach on my last visit; now I had the opportunity to venture inland into Machalilla, which protects what remains of the country's endangered dry tropical forest, and where the vegetation includes fluffy kapok trees and fragrant palo santo (holy wood) trees.
Within the park sits the indigenous village and archaeological site of Agua Blanca, and a small museum. When the Incas ruled the Ecuadorian highlands, this area was occupied by the Mantena tribe and was the centre of a trading network that stretched north to Mexico, using spondylus shells, which were worth more than gold, as currency. Now 16 families remain, living off fishing, agriculture and crafts.
The park is home to more than 200 species of bird as well as deer, armadillo and two species of monkey. With at least a day to spare, you can also explore the Chongon-Colonche mountains, a little further inland, where dry forest morphs into cloud forest, with help from the garua, or sea mist.
I settled for a three-hour walk through the forest with a local guide and Mantena descendant, who showed me ancient burial urns, the atmospheric remains of a temple and a natural volcanic lagoon.
Later, I hiked along the park's coastal path to the glorious sweep of Los Frailes beach, bathed in the golden glow of late afternoon. Save for hordes of scurrying Sally Lightfoot crabs, it was just me, the surf and the sunset. I took a long swim in the pellucid water and felt as though the Pacific was mine alone.
LAN codeshares with Qantas, flying from Sydney to Quito via Buenos Aires or Santiago, from $2650. 1 800 558 129, lan.com.
Alandaluz (alandaluzhosteria.com). Double cabins from $31 a night.
An 18 day Ecuador Experience, with several days based in Puerto Lopez exploring Machalilla National Park, including Isla de la Plata, is priced from $1199 a person, twin share, for selected departure dates this year. 1300 796 618, gapadventures.com.
Boats to Isla de la Plata leave daily from Puerto Lopez. If travelling independently, tour companies at the port offer guided national park tours, snorkelling, scuba diving and whale-watching (June-September). The wet season (January-May) offers better beach weather; the dry season (June-December) is cooler and often overcast.