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.