A Bird Tour in Ecuador
By Peter Stromberg
It’s upon us, a special time of year. Sometime in May, generally, things change on the coast of Ecuador, the dry season begins. Off shore winds and the classic North swells that provide the waves for the surf season abide and are replaced by a consistent onshore wind. This wind over the eons has shaped and persuaded the sandy cliffs that tower out of the ocean like ancient walls protecting a lost city. As these magnificent golden towers jut out of the sand and water, you can see the delicate hand of the wind in shaping the landscape with her breathtaking way of expressing art through erosion. The seasonal winds are the paintbrush and the cliffs are the canvas of a landscape that changes and evolves into forever.
Because of these constant onshore winds and the cliffs that characterize the South American continent, a special combination called dynamic lift is created, and with that comes one of the great adventures and thrills in life…flying. More specifically what I mean is paragliding. The coast of Manabi is regarded internationally as one of the best paragliding destinations on the planet. Because of our geographical location in the tropics we don’t get hurricanes or other crazy storm conditions that come with the convergence of widely ranging temperatures in the air. Ecuador is in the tropics, so it stays pretty warm at the lower elevations of the coast which allows for safe and consistent flying conditions and breathtaking scenes.
When I came here in 2007 as a tourist, it was the first time I had witnessed paragliding. Maybe I had seen some skydiving on television but I had never seen anybody go flying without a motor. I didn’t understand it or even think it was real. I remember seeing the brightly colored, empanada shaped parachute and the pilot playing around with the wind. It was love at first sight. I had never seen anything like it before, but my gut told me that I needed to do THAT. Now, over fourteen years later, paragliding on the coast of Manabi is better than ever and growing s
Starting on the southern coast around Montanita and ranging up to just north of Canoa you can find many places to fly. Wherever there is a cliff by the beach and a tourist scene; there is usually a tandem pilot there taking passengers on a real “bird tour.” Not a tour where you walk around and look at birds, but a tour where you actually strap yourself in and get to fly with the birds, without the noise of a motor. You are the bird. There’s something primal and nurturing in flying in silence with a flock of magnificent frigate birds as they cut through the air with grace and astonishing speed. It’s so fun to bump the shy pelicans off their course as you see them coming in their V formations, trying to share the lift that the cliffs create.
Falcons and hawks are able to stop and hover, scanning the landscape for their next snack. Because they can stop mid-air, a paraglider can approach them from behind and sneak right up, close enough to make eye contact with the liza
rd hunters. As amazing as all of this sounds, and IT IS truly amazing flying with the different birds as they do, without the sound of a motor and just using the up drafts in the wind…it gets even better in July and August.
In July and August the humpback whales make their yearly migration to visit their ancient nurseries and breeding grounds. Throughout the coast of Ecuador these gigantic creatures make their way back to their same “nesting spots” every year to have their babies and mate. During this time of year the male humpback whales will breach out of the water with their entire school bus sized bodies flying through the air. The airshow is a part of the courtship ritual that signals the mass of the male by the size of the splash. Bigger whale, bigger splash. I’ve yet to meet anyone that doesn’t stare with wonderment and slack the first time they see this spectacle of a giant monster breaching out of the water, it is something to behold.
The usual way to see the humpback whales is by a tour-boat, and in Ecuador we are fortunate to even be able to see them from the land. It is so fun to be sitting at a restaurant in Manta for lunch and see the whales jump around while you eat. Anyway that you can see whales is great in my opinion but my favorite way to watch the whales is while paragliding. Flying with the whales.
The yearly migration of humpback whales coincides with the best wind conditions of the entire season. During July and August the whales are here and they spend some time in this area, teaching the baby whales how to become whales. There are few things so burned in my memory as flying over the Pacific during a perfect sunset. A sunset with a staggering pallet of colors, from the most burning orange to the deepest blues, mixing the sky in with the greens of the Pacific Ocean. Just as one is thinking that this must be the most beautiful thing on earth and seriously contemplating if this is heaven… the whales started launching their enormous masses out of the water. One after the other flying through the air and slapping down on the water. It’s one of those times that you can experience the speed of sound. You can see these giants leap out of the water and crash back down to it with a great splash. The sound from the impact gets left behind as your eyes are somehow faster than your ears. Seconds later you can hear the sound of the crash and it dawns on you how big an animal must be to make a noise travel that far. You actually can hear them exploding back into the water.
Add paragliding to your Ecuador bucket list. Paragliding here has grown over the years and there is a surprising amount of locations that offer the sport in the mountains and on the coast. With the recent changes in technology, and growing popularity, the sport is becoming more safe and accessible to more people. It’s hard to describe the peaceful feeling of soaring with the birds, the only sound being the whispers of the winds and the crashing of the waves under a cotton candy sunset. Paragliding on the coast of Ecuador is something not to miss and if you’re lucky, and your timing is right, you might get a flight in with the whales.