The north coast and lowlands, lying west of the Andes and north of the road from Manta to Quevedo, are among the most culturally – and biologically – diverse regions of the country. A few hours by bus away from the highland chill seems to put you in another universe – one of steaming forests bursting with exotic plants, birds and animals, giving out to long sandy beaches bathed by a warm ocean. Even the people seem different; you’ll notice a much more relaxed and uninhibited atmosphere than in the sierra, further enhanced by a unique blend of Afro-Ecuadorian and indigenous Chachi and Tsáchila cultures.
Of the several routes to the northern lowlands from the sierra, the old road from Quito to the coast, the Calacalí– La Independencia road, passes through some of the best birdwatching territory in the country, including the village of Mindo and a handful of excellent private reserves protecting some of the last remaining cloudforests in the western Andes. Another road, which should be completed by the time you read this, will run broadly parallel between Otavalo and Quinindé, opening up communities and cloudforests hitherto too remote for casual visits. The main arterial route heads from Quito to Santo Domingo de los Colorados, set amid a broad sea of banana and oil-palm plantations, but skirts a few tropical wet forests too, including the little-explored Reserva Ecológica Mache-Chindul, which protects coastal hills swathed in impenetrable forests. From Santo Domingo a network of paved roads connects the major coastal centres of Esmeraldas, Pedernales, Bahía de Caráquez, Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil via Quevedo. The northernmost coast can be accessed by the fast, paved highway from Ibarra to the isolated port of San Lorenzo, lost in a knot of mangrove swamps; this road has largely replaced the famous old railway route, now defunct except for short fragments. Unlike the dry and scrubby shoreline to the south, the much lusher north enjoys high levels of rainfall, especially during the wet season (Dec–May), when monthly precipitation averages 300mm, but can easily reach 600mm; this can mean road washouts and travel disruption, so plan ahead.
A hundred kilometres down the coast from San Lorenzo, the rough oil-refining port of Esmeraldas lies just north of the area’s best-known beach resorts, the biggest and brashest of which is Atacames, famous for its bars and nightlife and jam-packed during summer months and holidays with serranos seeking sunshine and warm waters. The less-developed beach centres are a bit further afield, including the car-free sand-bar island of Muisne, 40km down the coast, and the laid-back surfing zone of Canoa, more than 150km south; between them, many tranquil, deserted beaches and hideaway hotels dot the coastline. At the southern end of the region, Bahía de Caráquez is an elegant resort town and a good base for visiting mangrove and tropical dry forests, and the lively port of Manta is the area’s economic powerhouse.