Some 10km north of Puerto López, a signed dirt track branches west from the coast road, just south of the run-down village of Machalilla, to Playa Los Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches on the Ecuadorian coast, with dramatic cliffs and forested hills framing its virgin white sands. Despite its popularity, the beach still feels like a wild, unspoiled place, particularly if you arrive in the early morning, when you’re almost guaranteed to have it all to yourself. To get there, hop on any of the buses heading north from Puerto López and ask to be dropped at the turn-off to the beach, about fifteen minutes out of town. Just off the road at the national park kiosk, show your ticket or buy one if you haven’t already paid your entrance fee.

From here a footpath leads directly to Los Frailes in thirty minutes (the left fork), or you can follow a four kilometre circular trail (the right fork) via the tiny black-sand cove known as La Playita, followed by Playa La Tortuguita, where spiky rocks rise from the turquoise waters. From La Tortuguita continue on the main footpath to Los Frailes, or follow the fork leading through dry forest dotted with fragrant palo santo trees up to a wooden mirador (lookout) giving spectacular views of the coast. This longer approach, via La Playita, La Tortuguita and the mirador, is by far the more rewarding and takes several hours to complete. About 3km north of the turning for Los Frailes, you’ll see signs for the Sendero El Rocío, an enjoyable two-kilometre trail beginning in the cultivated land of traditional coastal subsistence farms; it leads up to a viewpoint and into dry palo santo forest, emerging at an attractive beach. Locals act as guides for visitors; ask at the farms around the trailhead.

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