About 45km southeast of Guayaquil on the road to Machala is the prominent visitor centre of the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, which protects 350 square kilometres of mangrove swamps. They’re best viewed on a boat ride through the labyrinthine estuaries and channels that thread through the mangroves, whose dense tangle of interlocking branches looms out of the water. Originally covering a much larger coastal area (many were cleared to make way for shrimp farms), the mangroves are part of a unique ecosystem providing a habitat for many different fish and crustaceans and more than 260 bird species, including the purple gallinule, muscovy duck, pinnated bittern, glossy ibis, roseate spoonbill and horned screamer, now only found here in western Ecuador. Occasional sightings have been made of Chilean flamingos (Jan–Feb), and bottlenose dolphins (June–Nov) are frequently seen frolicking around the boats.
From the visitor centre, a rudimentary path (1hr) leads inland for a walk along the slopes of Cerro El Mate, a low hill with a lookout point, to Laguna El Canclón, a wide, grey lake encircled by low-lying hills and rich in birdlife. Another path, Sendero La Cascada (2hr), takes you through dense, dry forest by some enormous royal palms and up the slopes of a hill covered in lush vegetation. Snakes, guantas and howler monkeys – which you’re more likely to spot if with a guide – inhabit the dry and humid forests. The path is at the end of a track branching west from the coastal highway, 5km north of the visitor centre; guides can take you there in a jeep.