Parque Nacional Machalilla, mainland Ecuador’s only coastal national park, protects the country’s last major tract of tropical dry forest – now a mere one percent of its original size. The forest is notable for the remarkable contrast between the vegetation at sea level and that covering the hills rising to 800m above the coastline. The dry forest, panning in from the shore, comprises scorched-looking trees and shrubs adapted to scarce water supplies and saline soils, including many different cactuses, gnarled ceibas, barbasco trees and algarobbo (able to photosynthesize through its green bark). Also common are highly fragrant palo santo trees, whose bark is burned as incense in churches. A short hike east into the hills brings you into the wholly different landscape of coastal cloudforest, moistened by a rising sea mist that condenses as it hits the hills, where a dense covering of lush vegetation shelters ferns, heliconias, bromeliads, orchids and bamboos, as well as a great variety of animals and birds. The two different habitats can be observed on a ten-kilometre trail leading from the community of Agua Blanca, north of Puerto López, up to the San Sebastián cloudforest area. Agua Blanca sits near one of the most important archeological sites on the coast, the former settlement of Sangólome. Beyond this, the park takes in a number of pristine beaches, of which the most spectacular is Playa Los Frailes. Offshore areas include the tiny Isla Salango and the famous, bird-rich Isla de la Plata, the most popular destination in the park.
Pay your entrance fee at the park’s visitor centre in Puerto López at the brown-and-white thatched building opposite the market, on Eloy Alfaro (t05/2300170). The three types of tickets, all good for five days, allow access to the mainland ($12) or Isla de la Plata ($15), or provide entrance to both ($25). Arriving at the coastal sections of the park is easy on any of the buses running north along the coast road. Inland targets, such as the villages of Agua Blanca and Río Blanco, are not served by buses, but can be reached by camioneta ($5–6) from Puerto López, or on tours (around $35) offered by some of the town’s operators and hotels, including Naturis and Hostal Tuzco.
The weather is typically rainy, hot and sunny in summer (Jan–April), and dry, slightly cooler and overcast the rest of the year, with average year-round temperatures hovering around 23–25°C (73–77°F).