The middle section of Ecuador’s Pacific coastline is an excellent place for a holiday. It features miles of pristine beaches set in sweeping bays, lively fishing villages and unique pre-Columbian archaeology.
Montañita is a cool place and it knows it. Due to both its charm and excellent surfing it has grown in popularity over the last few years and although small, it’s a booming beachside retreat, attracting its fair share of foreigners as well as an alternative Ecuadorian crowd. It’s fairly quiet midweek but at the weekends throngs with young, trendy Guayaquileños escaping the big city for a dose of surfing freedom.
Pavement culture thrives in Montañita village and the two main roads are lined with outdoor cafes in which to sit, watch and be seen. The food is cheap and delicious – a diet of tropical fruit for breakfast and fresh seafood for the rest of the day comes highly recommended.
The beach is a glorious expanse of golden sand. There are a number of simple wooden beachside bars near the village and another cluster at La Punta, a sandy headland about 0.5km along at the North end of the beach. These bars are perfect for watching flocks of albatrosses skimming the waves and for sundowners with a view of the Pacific. Heaven!
Montañita is a South American surfing Mecca. Photo by Sarah Lazarus.
Accommodation is cheap and easy to find, particularly if you’re happy with a room in the village. Far nicer though is to stay in a beachside cabaña but everyone wants one so get there early.
Montañita parties ’til the wee small hours. When the sun sets the Ecuadorians promenade, strolling laps of the centre and checking out the action. The Doors and Bob Marley are alive and well and clearly the height of cool…..every single bar rocks to the sound of the sixties. Music isn’t just confined to the bars, night entertainment is something of a free for all and takes place on the streets too. Bongo drummers bash out freestyle rhythms whilst fire jugglers practice their craft. Not all of them have quite perfected the art of catching the torches – stand too close your eyebrows might get barbecued!
Montañita is fast becoming South America’s surfing mecca. Strong, consistent waves and good tubes make it
a great place to learn to surf and an increasingly popular destination on the international surfing circuit. In February every year, at Carnival time, Montañita hosts a surfing competition which is televised in Ecuador and stars competitors from as far away as Australia and Hawaii.
Montañita is filled with beachside bars like this one. Photo by Sarah Lazarus.
Depending on the phase of the moon and its subsequent effect on the tides, the waves range from 3 – 12 ft through the month. Even 3 foot waves look intimidating to a novice. Inexperienced surfers are at risk if they go out without supervision so lessons are essential for beginners.
If you’ve got surfing genes you’ll be standing on your board on day one. If like the rest of us you’re not blessed with natural talent it can take from 1 to 3 weeks. Lessons are mostly individual for 2.5 hrs each day. They cost USD 10 daily or USD 45 for a 5-day course Group tuition is also available.
Thirty seven kilometres North of Montañita you will see a great big sign on the road decorated with the birds with the blue feet – you can’t miss it. Piqueros Patas Azules combines a bar, a restaurant serving delicious seafood, an archaeological museum and a private beach complete with hammocks, deck chairs and parasols. Its an easy place to spend a whole day learning about early Ecuadorean culture as well as eating, drinking and relaxing in the sun.
The bar is decorated with old nautical equipment and relics of bygone days such as huge tortoise shells and shark jaws. Signs warn of the dangers of the wanton destruction of the past that almost resulted in the extinction of these creatures.
The museum stands testament to its owner’s passion for archaeology. All the excavations you will see were carried out by him on his own land. You approach it along a path which is home to a community of large red, yellow and blue crabs. They live in holes in the ground but surface to observe visitors with their pop-eyes on stalks. There are also uncovered graves en route where the skulls of past residents try to rest in peace in cracked funerary urns.
One of the many burial urns en route to the museum. Photo by Sarah Lazarus.
The artifacts in the museum date from 2600-1500BC. They represent the Valdivian culture which thrived in this region until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. The Valdvians were fishing and hunting people and produced an abundance of ceramic pots and carved figurines. There are special stamps on display which were originally used to imprint the names of the tribal chiefs. The chiefs were all named after animals and the stamps bear pictures of the creatures of their choosing – Chief Monkey, Chief Crocodile and Chief Pelican. There are also various huge ancient fossils such as an enormous black caiman which is no longer found in this part of the country and whalebone from a mammoth whale that went extinct millions of years ago.
The centre of the room is a big rubbish bin. The early coastal inhabitants moved home to live up in the hills behind the beaches and then simply tossed their rubbish down the slopes. The museum floor has been removed to reveal a jumble of broken pots and other assorted prehistoric litter.
This tiny tranquil fishing village has only a couple of streets but is home to an impressive and well-maintained archaeological museum. The exhibits feature numerous artifacts demonstrating ancient innovations in ceramics, fishing techniques and shipping technology. There’s an excellent reconstruction of an early fishing raft which looks none too sturdy given the size of the Pacific waves that crash on the beach behind the museum building!
Puerto López is the ideal place from which to explore Machalilla National Park. This sleepy seaside town sits in a picturesque horseshoe bay with gentle waves, rocking fishing boats and a tree-lined promenade. The beach is the focus of local life with fishermen mending their nets, courting couples, unaccompanied cows wandering along the shore and kids running down to play in the breakers at sunset.
Salango is a typical coastal fishing village. Photo by Sarah Lazarus.
Transport along all this part of the coast is easy because there’s only one road. Buses run either North or South, appear about every 30 minutes and you can flag one down or get off at any point you choose. You’ll see evidence of construction and bridges being repaired all the way along the coastal road in the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by El Niño in 1999.
They bus service ends early at about 7pm but don’t worry if you miss the last bus home because a number of private enterprises are available. Camionetas (trucks) frequently drive by and for little more than the bus fare will take you to your destination. One memorable night I caught a ride with some locals on a farmer’s truck. We roared through the starry night perched on top of a mountain of oranges and enthusiastically munched our way through the cargo. Orange trucks come highly recommended if you can find one.
Machalilla National Park encompasses 55,000 hectares of land and 2 offshore islands, Isla de la Plata and Isla Salango. It constitutes the last remnants of dry tropical forest in Ecuador and is home to a rich variety of birdlife as well as some reptiles and mammals.
A 5 day entrance pass to the Park, including the islands, costs $20 in the high season (May to September) and USD 15 at other times.
This is a small village inside the park which is home to another excellent archaeological museum. It contains local ceramics, jewellery and domestic objects attributed to the Manteña civilisation dating from 500 BC – 1500 AD.
You can get there independently by catching a bus to roughly 5 kms North of Puerto Lopez. From here there’s a turn off and you walk 5 kms inland on an unpaved road. Alternatively various agencies in Puerto Lopez organise day trips with transport. From Agua Blanca there’s an easy 45-minute walk to some pre-Inca ruins and guides can be hired in the village.
San Sebastián is situated at 800 metres above sea level, a higher and wetter altitude compared to the relatively low and dry Agua Blanca. It’s difficult to get there independently but agencies in Puerto Lopez organise 2 day tours which take in both places. Look out for beautiful orchids and noisy howler monkeys.
Reputed to be the most beautiful beach in Ecuador and the star of countless posters, Los Frailes is 30 minutes North of Puerto Lopez by bus. If you wish to test that reputation but aren’t planning to visit rest of the park you can buy a cheaper beach-only day ticket for USD 10
The bus drops you off at a signed turn off. There’s a ticket booth and a house where you can store luggage and buy cokes and water. There are no refreshments available at the beach and the sun can be intense so it’s important to stock up. From there it’s a circular walk which takes 2-2.5 hrs. A 3.5-km trail winds down to the beach and leads across three separate beaches. The first two are in smaller protected bays on either side of a headland. One has black sand and one white. The third is the famous beach and deservedly so – it’s a huge white sweep of sand framed by forested cliffs. It’s sparkling clean and has been protected from any form of human construction. The big crabs rule here. From there it’s a 2.5-km walk back on an unpaved road.
Los Frailes is well worth it if the sun’s shining but the price is hard to justify on an overcast day, particularly if you bear in mind that there is a whole coastline of fabulous beaches, which cost nothing, waiting to be explored.
The Isla is named after the silver that Sir Francis Drake allegedly stole from the Spanish and buried there. To this day it’s not been recovered but there’s no harm in looking. Even if you don’t find hidden treasures it’s well worth a visit. The Isla is generally considered to be a cheaper alternative to Galapagos and is home to various must-see birds including frigates with big red pouches on their necks, boobies with blue feet, boobies with red feet, masked boobies, pelicans and a small nesting colony of waved albatrosses. There’s also a resident group of sea lions.
The Isla is also a top spot for whale-watching, one of the primary sites in Ecuador for our large blubbery friends. Humpback whales cruise in from the Antarctic between June and September to enjoy the warm Pacific waters. This time of year is mating season and the whales can be heard serenading and chatting to each other as they pair up. Despite being a favourite prey of whalers for centuries, humpbacks aren’t particularly timid and if you’re lucky you’ll get a close up view
There are various agencies in Puerto López which run day trips. They all charge USD 25 which includes the use of snorkelling equipment and lunch. Itineraries incorporate a walk around the island in the morning followed by an afternoon of snorkelling offshore. The island has two trails, one takes three hours to walk and the other five.