The expanses of pale sand streaking west of Esmeraldas sustain some of the country’s most popular seaside resorts. During the high season (mid-June to Sept & Dec–Jan), a deluge of vacationers descends from the highlands, but the real crush comes during Carnaval, Semana Santa, Christmas and New Year, when the price of a room – if you can find one – can double. Atacames is the most famous and raucous resort, while others such as Súa and Same offer a more tranquil atmosphere, but can be just as busy at peak times. The beaches break around the dry and rocky headland of the Punta Galera, whose cliffs and secluded coves provide the quietest and most isolated beaches in the region, giving way to mangrove forests around Muisne, one of the remoter seaside resorts of the province. Regular buses travel between Muisne and Esmeraldas.
Relaxed by day and brash, noisy and fun at night, ATACAMES is one of Ecuador’s top beach resorts, always crowded during holidays and at Carnaval, when it’s literally standing room only on its dusky beach. The town is divided by the tidal waters of the Río Atacames, which parallel the shore for about 1km, resulting in a slender, sandy peninsula connected to the mainland by a footbridge and, further upstream, a road bridge.
Most of the bars, hotels and restaurants in Atacames are on the peninsula and the shops and services are on the other side of the river, along the main road from Esmeraldas and around the little parque central. By the beach, the Malecón is the place for night-time action: salsa, merengue, pop and techno pummel the air from rival speakers, while partiers dance – or stagger – to the beat and knock back fruity cocktails. On weekdays and during the low season the crowds evaporate, but you can always count on a smattering of bars being open.
Apart from the beach and the bars, there’s not much more to Atacames, though the Museo Acuario Marino, opposite the Tahiti hotel towards the northern end of the Malecón, presents starfish, turtles, caiman, seahorses and piranhas in fairly miserable conditions. Far more uplifting are the humpback whales visible off the coast between June and September (boats usually depart from Súa); Tahiti (t06/2731078) on the Malecón is among many hotels offering whale tours. Diving trips are offered by Fernando Valencia, the owner of Tahiti (number above).
The sea here has a strong undertow that has claimed a number of victims, despite the occasional presence of volunteer lifeguards. Crime is also an unfortunate element of the quieter beach areas, so stay near the crowds, avoid taking valuables onto the beach and stay off it completely at night. The beachside market, mostly stocked with trinkets and sarongs, sometimes has black-coral jewellery for sale – a species under threat and illegal to take out of the country.
Located some 35km south of the big resorts, luxury seaside villas and condominiums, MUISNE lies just beyond the range of most serrano vacationers, giving the place a slightly abandoned feel. Nonetheless, the relaxed and friendly air draws a reasonable amount of travellers down to this unusual, rather exotic resort, sitting on a seven-kilometre palm-fringed sand bar amid the mangrove swamps just off the mainland, reached only by boat from the small town of El Relleno, across the Río Muisne.
As you dock, first impressions are not promising. The salty breeze, equatorial sun and high humidity bring buildings out in an unsightly rash of peeling paint and mouldy green concrete, giving the place a dilapidated appearance – upkeep and construction are expensive, as materials have to be laboriously hauled in from the dock.
The island itself splits into two distinct parts, connected by the double boulevard of Isidro Ayora, which runs 2km from the docks to the beach. The town’s main shops and services cluster around the dock, where the police, post office and hospital are located, a close distance to the modest parque central on Isidro Ayora. Muisne’s main attractions lie at the boulevard’s other end, where crashing breakers and a broad, flat beach are fronted by a handful of inexpensive hotels, restaurants and the odd bar, all shaded by a row of palms.
For security reasons, do not take valuables onto the beach, walk on it at night or venture into deserted areas. From time to time you may notice pinprick-like stings when swimming in the ocean; these are caused by tiny jellyfish (aguamala), whose sting doesn’t last much longer than ten minutes. Locals claim a splash of vinegar relieves the pain – ask at a beachside restaurant.
Brains over prawn
Brains over prawn
In the last twenty years about 20,000 hectares of mangroves surrounding the town have been cut down to create shrimp farms – ugly pools resembling sewage treatment facilities – which have dealt a severe blow to the birds, marine life and people who relied on the trees for food and sustenance. A handful of entrepreneurs have become millionaires, but most people have lost their way of life and many now work in the shrimp farms to survive or have migrated to city slums elsewhere. Government measures to stop the destruction – three to thirty days in jail for felling a mangrove – have largely remained unenforced and ineffective, meaning only about 3000 hectares of constantly threatened mangrove forests survive.
The organization Fundecol (t06/2248201 or in Quito t02/2522714) attempts to protect the trees through security patrols, political activism, education and by running tours of the area ($30); local hotels offer similar trips. The Fundación Jatun Sacha manages the Congal Biological Station in five square kilometres of primary mangrove forest 2km from Muisne, developing ecologically sound aquaculture and running reforestation programmes; for volunteering work at Congal, contact Jatun Sacha in Quito (t02/2432240, wwww.jatunsacha.org).