Viewed by many Ecuadorians as the nation’s playground, the northern coast is home to dozens of popular beach resorts, all within a day’s drive of the capital. Busloads of serranos trundle down from the highlands to fill the resorts during weekends and holidays, making the most of the fun-loving and relaxed costeño spirit. Despite its popularity, the north coast is still relatively undeveloped, and you’ll be able to find peaceful hideaways even at the busiest times. The area also holds mangroves, rocky cliffs, tropical wet forests, scrubby tropical dry forests, hidden fishing villages and forgotten ports, as well as some of the least explored parts of Ecuador outside the Oriente.
At the coast’s northern tip near Colombia, San Lorenzo acts as the launching pad for trips to several little-visited destinations. The coast from La Tola down to Esmeraldas features long and often deserted beaches, whose potential has only recently been discovered. On the other side of Esmeraldas are some of Ecuador’s most popular resorts, such as Atacames, loaded with beachfront bars, music and cocktails, or the smaller villages of Tonsupa, Súa, Same and Tonchigüe where fishing boats are giving way to beach towels and hotels.
Past the rocky Punta Galera is Muisne, a less hectic resort on an offshore sand bar, from where a road loops inland and back to the sea at Pedernales and the closest beaches to Quito. Further south, oceanside cliffs and sleepy coves make good geography for a cluster of hideaways, and the long beaches return at the surfing hangout of Canoa, extending all the way to San Vicente. Across the Río Chone estuary, Bahía de Caráquez is one of Ecuador’s smarter resorts, while Manta is the country’s exuberant second port and boasts a few beaches of its own. Portoviejo is the staid inland provincial capital of Manabí province, whose locals favour the nearby resorts of Crucita, San Jacinto and San Clemente.
Four main roads from the highlands run to the north coast; from Ibarra to San Lorenzo, running parallel to the largely disused railway; from Quito via Calacalí or Aloag; and from Latacunga via Quevedo. A fifth route from Otavalo via Quinindé is also nearing completion. Once you’re at the sea, it’s easy to get around on the paved coastal road, the Vía del Pacífico (E15), which runs the length of the shore. After heavy rains, washouts on roads to and around the coast are common and journey times are likely to be much greater.
The area has two distinct seasons, but the climate changes slightly the further south you go. Daytime average temperatures hover around 26°C (79°F) across the region throughout the year, with greater rainfall and humidity north of Pedernales; to the south there’s very little rain from June to November. The wet season (Dec–May) features clear skies interrupted by torrential afternoon rains that can wash out roads. Mosquitoes tend to be more of a problem at this time, and Esmeraldas province has one of the highest incidences of malaria in the country, so take plenty of insect repellent; see Basics. During the dry season the days are a little cooler and consistently cloudy, without as much rain. The most popular resorts get very crowded during national holidays and the high season (mid-June to early Sept & Dec–Jan), when hotel rates can be double the low-season prices and rooms are harder to come by.Read More
- San Lorenzo
- The coast west to Muisne
- Muisne to San Vicente
Bahía de Caráquez and around
Bahía de Caráquez and around
One of Ecuador’s most agreeable coastal resort towns, BAHÍA DE CARÁQUEZ, an upmarket place of spotless, white high-rise apartment blocks, broad tree-lined avenues and leafy parks, sits on a slender peninsula of sand extending into the broad mouth of the Río Chone. Yachts from around the world bob and sway in the town’s marina.
Following mudslides and a damaging earthquake in 1998, Bahía (as it’s called for short) started afresh, proclaiming itself a ciudad ecológica, an eco-city, and set up a number of ambitious projects, including recycling, permaculture, composting, reforestation, conservation and environmental-education programmes. Even the tricicleros paint their “eco-taxis” green, adorning them with signs reading “Bienvenidos Bahía Eco-Ciudad”. The Día del Mangle fiesta on February 28 marks the declaration with music and events such as mangrove planting in the estuary.
Bahía lies near several wonderful natural attractions, including tropical dry forests, empty beaches and mangrove islands teeming with aquatic birds. The vast shrimp farms in the estuary displaced more than sixty square kilometres of mangrove forest during the 1980s and 1990s, with the obvious exception of the world’s first organic shrimp farm, a pollution-free enterprise that also helps in reforestation. Local tour agencies, some of which have played a major role in the local environmental movement, organize a number of good excursions in the area.
Bahía is a pleasant town for a stroll – or taking a cruise with a triciclero ($5 per hour) – following the Malecón around the peninsula and viewing the busy river estuary on the east side, or the rough rollers coming to shore on the west. Locals swim and surf here, but to find more generous expanses of sand, take a taxi to the beaches south of town like Punta Bellaca (7km away; arrange return journey in advance). A good complement to the seaside promenade is the short push up to Mirador La Cruz, on top of the hill at the foot of the peninsula, which affords grand views of the city and bay.
In town, the renovated Museo Bahía de Caráquez del Banco Central houses pre-Columbian artefacts, such as a Valdivian belt of highly prized spondylus shells from 3000 BC, plus a replica balsa raft, as well as temporary art exhibitions.
Manta and around
Manta and around
About 50km south of Bahía de Caráquez, set in a broad bay dotted with freighters, cruise ships and fishing boats, MANTA is a city of some 183,000 people and Ecuador’s largest port after Guayaquil. Divided by the Río Manta between the throbbing commercial centre to the west and the poorer residential area Tarqui to the east, the city is a manufacturing centre – but it’s the seafood industry that really drives the economy. Fish and shrimp processors and packers line the roads entering Manta, and the business of netting swordfish, shark and dorado is lucrative enough to draw US and Japanese fishing fleets to these abundant waters. President Rafael Correra refused to renew the lease for a major US air base here used for drug surveillance – unless Ecuador could build a base in Miami, which unsurprisingly was rejected. Plans are now afoot to build a large oil refinery to take up the economic shortfall created by the closure of the base.
Manta is also known as a lively, holiday destination; its main beach is relatively clean, regularly patrolled, lined with restaurants and packed at weekends. As a bustling modern port more manageable in size and temperament than Guayaquil, Manta is a good place to refuel and make use of the banks, cinemas and services of a busy urban centre. A new road skirting the coast to the southwest also makes it a gateway to undeveloped villages and beaches, as well as the more established resorts of the southern coast beyond Puerto Cayo, where the road joins the Ruta del Sol.
Manta’s tourist focus is the Playa Murciélago, a broad beach 1.5km north of the town centre, where from December to April the surf is good enough for the town to host international bodyboarding and windsurfing competitions. Swimmers should take care year round, as there is a strong undertow; there’s usually plenty else going on here at weekends, from music to volleyball. The Malecón Escénico, a strip of restaurants and bars with a car park, fronts the beach. The police advise against wandering to quiet spots beyond the Oro Verde, where robberies have been reported. A string of fabulous beaches graces the coast west of town, starting with Playa Barbasquillo and Playa Piedra Larga.
Opposite the Malecón Escénico at Calle 19, the Museo Centro Cultural Manta has an interesting collection of artefacts from the Valdivian culture, which flourished here from 3500–1500 BC, and the later Manteño culture, including fish-shaped ocarinas and beautiful zoomorphic jugs and flasks. Heading east down the Malecón, you’ll soon pass the Capitanía, by the entrance to Manta’s main port, frequented by warships, the odd millionaire’s yacht and countless container ships. Cruise liners tend to call between November and February, when the artesanía market at the Plaza Cívica, Malecón and Calle 13, is at its busiest and thronging with indigenous traders from Otavalo, who offer a decent selection of woven goods, jumpers and hammocks alongside more familiar coastal wares such as tagua carvings and Panama hats.
A block east is Manta’s leafiest corner, the main square of Parque Eloy Alfaro and the Parque de la Madre. Away from the shore, the old heart of the port features narrow streets and wooden buildings rising up the hill.