On its way south to the border 244km away, the major coastal highway from Guayaquil passes one of the most important mangrove estuaries on the coast, the Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, where you can arrange to take boat rides through the swamps or walk in the surrounding forest. Further south, the road slices through endless banana plantations as you enter the country’s banana-growing heartland. Ecuador didn’t start exporting the fruit until 1945, but the boom that followed was so dramatic the crop became the country’s most important agricultural export within two years, and has remained so ever since. A large portion of banana cultivation occurs in the province of El Oro, whose capital Machala is the main service centre of the industry. It’s a busy, workaday town holding little of interest, but does serve as a handy base for trips to the charming hillside town of Zaruma, 86km east, and the petrified forest of Puyango, 100km south. It’s also a convenient stop on the way to Peru, a one-hour bus ride south; most travellers choose to spend the night here before crossing the border at the dusty, ramshackle town of Huaquillas.