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.