Sprawling over the west bank of the murky Río Guayas, the focus of Ecuador’s southern coast is the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city and an economic powerhouse that handles most of the country’s imports and exports. Traditionally considered loud, frenetic, dirty and dangerous, Guayaquil has benefited from a huge injection of cash and a slew of urban regeneration schemes over the last decade or so, and these days is an enjoyable place to spend time in. Its beautiful riverside promenade, Malecón 2000, is a particular highlight, and the city’s upbeat, urban tempo makes an exciting change of pace from rural Ecuador.
In contrast to this dynamic metropolis, Ecuador’s southern coast, stretching south to the border with Peru and north to Puerto Cayo in southern Manabí, is largely rural and quiet, sporting a mix of mangrove swamps, shrimp farms and sandy beaches dotted with dusty villages and low-key resorts. Inland, monotonous banana plantations and brittle scrubland hold little appeal, though they do give way to lush forests further north. South of Guayaquil, the coastal highway heads 250km down to Peru, passing a few minor attractions on the way. Just south of town is the bird-rich Reserva Ecológica Manglares Churute, protecting one of the last major mangrove swamps left on the southern coast. Further south, Machala – capital of El Oro province and famous as the nation’s “banana capital” – is low on sights and ambience, but serves as a useful launchpad for outlying targets such as the scenic hillside village of Zarumaor the fascinating petrified forest of Puyango, and is also handy as a stop on the way to the border crossing at Huaquillas.
West of Guayaquil, the neighbouring towns of Santa Elena and La Libertadare handy gateways to the self-styled Ruta del Sol, a 137km stretch of coast sporting a succession of long, golden beaches lapped by turquoise waters. Apart from the flashy, high-rise town of Salinas, just west of La Libertad, most are fairly undeveloped and backed by small resorts or down-at-heel fishing villages. Few places see many gringos along here, with the exceptions of laid-back Montañita, a grungy surfing hangout, the eco-resort of Alandaluz, with its tasteful bamboo cabins and private stretch of beach, and the dusty, tumbledown port of Puerto López, a base for summer whale-watching and year-round visits to Parque Nacional Machalilla. This park is the southern coast’s most compelling attraction, taking in stunning, pristine beaches, dry and humid tropical forests and, most famously, the Isla de la Plata, an inexpensive alternative to the Galápagos for viewing boobies, frigatebirds and waved albatrosses.
The best time to visit the southern coast is between December and April, when bright blue skies and warm weather more than compensate for the frequent showers of the rainy season – the time of year when coastal vegetation comes to life and dry tropical forests become luxuriant and moist. Outside these months, the dry season features warm weather (around 23°C), but often depressingly grey skies. Not all the south coast’s beaches are safe for swimming and many, like Manglaralto and Montañita, have dangerous currents and riptides that should be approached with great caution. Another consideration is the irregular and unpredictable El Niño weather phenomenon, when unusually heavy storms can leave the coast severely battered, washing away roads and disrupting communications.
Some 73km southwest of Machala, HUAQUILLAS is a chaotic, jerry-built, mosquito-ridden border town. Its main commercial street is lined by hundreds of hectic market stalls selling cheap clothes, shoes, bags, food and electrical goods, while enormous shop signs hang over their canopies from dilapidated buildings on either side. Most visitors crossing the border avoid staying here by spending the night in Machala, but if you need a place to sleep you’ll find clean, modest rooms with private bathrooms, air conditioning and cable TVs at the Hotel Hernancor on 1 de Mayo and Hualtaco, while the cheaper Rodey, Teniente Córdovez and 10 de Agosto, has only fans. There are a number of inexpensive canteens, but good restaurants include La Habana, T. Córdovez and Santa Rosa, for its affordable seafood, grills, breakfast and almuerzos, and El Flamingo, Avenida de la República and Costa Rica, for cakes, shakes and ice creams. Internet facilities are available at Hot Net, Avenida de la República and Santa Rosa.
The Río Zarumilla, hugging the southwestern edge of Huaquillas, forms the border, and is crossed by the international bridge leading to the small town of Aguas Verdes in Peru. Before crossing it, you’ll need to get your exit stamp at the Ecuadorian immigration office (open 24hr), 2km east of Huaquillas on the road from Machala ($2 by taxi). If you’re coming here straight from Machala, bus drivers will drop you at the office on the way into Huaquillas (remind them as they sometimes forget), but won’t wait for you while you get your exit stamp, usually a fairly fast and painless process. From here, hop on a bus or take a taxi to the bridge, which you’ll have to cross on foot. On the other side, Peruvian officials may check your passport, but entry stamps are normally obtained at the main Peruvian immigration office at Zarumilla, a few kilometres away. It can be reached by mototaxis for about a dollar or by various other forms of transport that continue on to Tumbes, 27km south: regular buses, which won’t wait for you while you get your passport stamped; taxis ($6, including wait at Zarumilla; firm bargaining required); or colectivos (about $0.75), though drivers are sometimes reluctant to wait at Zarumilla. Once in Tumbes, it’s easy to find a direct bus to Piura, Trujillo or Lima.
It’s quite a stressful experience, with a bevy of moneychangers, bus touts, bag carriers and taxi drivers jostling for your business and plenty of thieves around as well – keep your wits about you and never lose sight of your bags. Change as little money as possible, as the rates aren’t good unless you bargain hard. Official moneychangers in Ecuador wear IDs, but always check calculations and cash received before handing anything over.
One hundred kilometres south of Machala, spread over a dusty, semi-arid river valley close to the Peruvian border, is the Puyango petrified forest, the largest of its kind in South America. It contains dozens of enormous fossilized tree trunks up to 120 million years old, many of which you can see from the 8km of marked paths wending through the mineralized wood. At the visitor centre, where you pay and register your visit, you can hire a guide (usually one of the warden’s sons) to show you around the site; they don’t speak English, but will point out many hidden fossils you’d otherwise miss, such as the imprints of ferns concealed by riverside plants. The most impressive relics are the giant tree trunks, types of araucaria, which grew in the region millions of years ago; many are in fragments but a few are almost whole, the largest being 11m long and 1.6m in diameter. The area is also inhabited by more than 150 species of birdlife, including beautiful red-masked parakeets.
A small museum (usually locked; ask the staff for entry) near the visitor centre houses a stash of incredible exhibits, including many marine fossils dating from when much of the region was covered by the sea, now 50km away. The collection includes fossilized pieces of fruit, including a chirimoya (a custard apple – you can still see the pips), a ray, small tortoise and octopus with clearly visible eyes. Perhaps the most intriguing pieces are the large, perfectly oval stones you can hold in your hands – and which the staff believe are dinosaur egg fossils.