Sprawling over the west bank of the murky Río Guayas, the focus of Ecuador’s southern coast is the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city and an economic powerhouse that handles most of the country’s imports and exports. Traditionally considered loud, frenetic, dirty and dangerous, Guayaquil has benefited from a huge injection of cash and a slew of urban regeneration schemes over the last decade or so, and these days is an enjoyable place to spend time in. Its beautiful riverside promenade, Malecón 2000, is a particular highlight, and the city’s upbeat, urban tempo makes an exciting change of pace from rural Ecuador.
In contrast to this dynamic metropolis, Ecuador’s southern coast, stretching south to the border with Peru and north to Puerto Cayo in southern Manabí, is largely rural and quiet, sporting a mix of mangrove swamps, shrimp farms and sandy beaches dotted with dusty villages and low-key resorts. Inland, monotonous banana plantations and brittle scrubland hold little appeal, though they do give way to lush forests further north. South of Guayaquil, the coastal highway heads 250km down to Peru, passing a few minor attractions on the way. Just south of town is the bird-rich Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, protecting one of the last major mangrove swamps left on the southern coast. Further south, Machala – capital of El Oro province and famous as the nation’s “banana capital” – is low on sights and ambience, but serves as a useful launchpad for outlying targets such as the scenic hillside village of Zaruma or the fascinating petrified forest of Puyango, and is also handy as a stop on the way to the border crossing at Huaquillas.
West of Guayaquil, the neighbouring towns of Santa Elena and La Libertad are handy gateways to the self-styled Ruta del Sol, a 137km stretch of coast sporting a succession of long, golden beaches lapped by turquoise waters. Apart from the flashy, high-rise town of Salinas, just west of La Libertad, most are fairly undeveloped and backed by small resorts or down-at-heel fishing villages. Few places see many gringos along here, with the exceptions of laid-back Montañita, a grungy surfing hangout, the eco-resort of Alandaluz, with its tasteful bamboo cabins and private stretch of beach, and the dusty, tumbledown port of Puerto López, a base for summer whale-watching and year-round visits to Parque Nacional Machalilla. This park is the southern coast’s most compelling attraction, taking in stunning, pristine beaches, dry and humid tropical forests and, most famously, the Isla de la Plata, an inexpensive alternative to the Galápagos for viewing boobies, frigatebirds and waved albatrosses.
The best time to visit the southern coast is between December and April, when bright blue skies and warm weather more than compensate for the frequent showers of the rainy season – the time of year when coastal vegetation comes to life and dry tropical forests become luxuriant and moist. Outside these months, the dry season features warm weather (around 23°C), but often depressingly grey skies. Not all the south coast’s beaches are safe for swimming and many, like Manglaralto and Montañita, have dangerous currents and riptides that should be approached with great caution. Another consideration is the irregular and unpredictable El Niño weather phenomenon, when unusually heavy storms can leave the coast severely battered, washing away roads and disrupting communications.