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.