West of Guayaquil, the busy E-40 highway heads to the westernmost tip of the mainland, marked by the Santa Elena Peninsula. It’s an especially crowded route on Friday evenings when droves of Guayaquileños flee the uncomfortable heat of the city for the cooling breezes of the Pacific. Just fifteen minutes down the road, the highway provides access to a couple of enjoyable attractions that you could take in en route to the coast, or as a day-trip from Guayaquil, including the Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco, a small, well-managed forest reserve, and Puerto Hondo, a little village perched by a mangrove swamp that you can explore by boat. A further 45km west, a side road branches south to the easy-going, somewhat shabby little town of Playas, the closest beach resort to Guayaquil and always heaving with visitors on summer weekends (Dec–April).
Continuing west along the main road, you enter increasingly dry and scrubby terrain as you approach the Santa Elena Peninsula, the site of three towns – Santa Elena, La Libertad and Salinas – merging into one other almost seamlessly. The peninsula is of great archeological interest, as it was originally occupied by the country’s most ancient cultures, such as the Las Vegas and the Valdivia. Some of the most important archeological sites have impressive museums attached to them, including the fabulous Amantes de Sumpa, near Santa Elena, sporting the tomb of two eight-thousand-year-old skeletons locked in an embrace. However, the peninsula is best known for its beaches, in particular the glitzy and often crowded resort of Salinas. A few quieter, calmer alternatives are Ballenito and Punta Carnero, and the small inland attraction of the thermal baths of San Vicente.
Accommodation in Playas falls into two different areas: a cluster of lower-end hotels and residenciales in the centre and several upmarket choices dotted along the coast-hugging Avenida Roldos. Expect discounts in low season. The latter places can be reached on the unsigned pick-up trucks that serve as taxis ($1, less if you bargain hard) from Avenida Guayaquil, off the main square.
Arriving by bus from Guayaquil (2hr), Transportes Villamil will drop you off at the depot behind the town plaza, while Transportes Posorja unloads at the intersection of Avenida Paquisha and Guayaquil; both points are just three blocks from the seafront. There’s an ATM (Visa and MasterCard) at the Banco de Guayaquil on the main square, opposite the church.
All the hotels out of the centre have their own restaurants specializing in fresh fish and seafood. In town, don’t miss the Lebanese-owned Rincón de Mary, on Avenida Roldos, whose owner prepares kibe (minced beef with herbs and spices in breadcrumbs) at very reasonable prices as well as fabulous falafel, tabbouleh and creamed aubergine; drop in and give advance notice if you want something more elaborate. There’s also the attractively rustic La Cabaña Típica, on the beachfront close to the Rincón de Mary, with delicious ceviches, or the nearby string of cevicherías and picanterías on the beach and at the intersection of avenidas Paquisha and Roldos, selling cheap, fresh fish.
West from Santa Elena towards Salinas, a roadside petrol refinery signals your arrival in LA LIBERTAD, the largest town on the peninsula and the site of a busy produce market. With its untidy streets and unattractive beach, there’s no reason to stop off here other than to catch a connecting bus (every 30min during daylight hours) north up the coast road, the Ruta del Sol, from the bus station on Avenida 8 and Calle 17, Barrio Eloy Alfaro. Other destinations are serviced by bus companies from their offices in the town centre clustered near 9 de Octubre and Guayaquil: Coop Libertad Peninsular and CICA run alternate buses to Guayaquil (every 15min; 2hr 30min); and Trans Esmeraldas has three nightly buses to Quito (10hr).
Five kilometres south of La Libertad – but reached by a longer, more circuitous road branching off the highway a few kilometres west of town – is the infinitely more appealing PUNTA CARNERO, a lonely, windswept promontory commanding superb views of the fifteen-kilometre stretch of beach flanking it. Pounding waves and strong currents make swimming at the beach unadvisable, but this is still a fabulous place to treat yourself to sun and solitude.
Entrance to the reserve, which is run by the Fundación Pro-Bosque, is a thirty-minute bus ride from Guayaquil (every 10min), on any service to Playas, Santa Elena, La Libertad or Salinas from the main bus terminal. Look for the big sign for the Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco on the right-hand (north) side of the highway, where the driver will drop you off. From here it’s a fifteen-minute walk up a clearly marked track to the information centre. On weekends you can just turn up, but on weekdays you should book ahead on t 04/2874946 or t 2874947. Should you want to stay, there’s a pleasant two-room bamboo lodge ($16–20) and a free camping area with decent facilities; the site also has a small café-restaurant which opens on weekends. Many of the trail guides ($7–12 per group; some speak English) are biology students from Guayaquil University. There are usually several about, but it’s worth phoning ahead to book one, particularly if you want to take the Sendero Buena Vista Largo walk.
The highway ends 5km west of La Libertad and 170km from Guayaquil at SALINAS, Ecuador’s swankiest beach resort. Arriving at its graceful seafront avenue, the Malecón, feels like stepping into another world: gone are the ramshackle streets characteristic of Ecuador’s coastal towns, replaced by a gleaming boulevard lined with glitzy, high-rise condominiums sweeping around a large, beautiful bay. Closer inspection reveals the streets behind the Malecón are as dusty and potholed as anywhere else, but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone – it’s the beach that counts here, with clean, golden sand and warm, calm waters safe for swimming. The best time to enjoy it is December, early January or March, during weekdays. Around Carnaval and on summer weekends it gets unbearably packed, while from April to November it can be overcast and dreary.
Salinas’ main draw is its long, curving, golden beach, and warm(ish) ocean waters, safe for swimming in. Get here soon after breakfast and you’ll have the sand and the sea virtually to yourself – but by afternoon in the high season you’ll be sharing them with droves of vacationing Ecuadorians.
If you need a change of scene, try the Museo Salinas Siglo XXI, on the Malecón and Guayas y Quil. It’s divided into two sections: one giving an excellent overview of pre-Columbian cultures on the peninsula, including some beautifully crafted Guayala and Manteño-Huancavilca ceramics; the other with displays on nautical history, including items recovered from the galleon La Capitana, which sank off the coast near Punta Chanduy in 1654, taking with it more than two thousand silver bars and two hundred chests of coins. The small but captivating Museo de Ballenas (daily 10am–5pm, or when Oystercatcher restaurant is open; ring bell for attention or call t04/2778329; wwww.femm.org; donations welcome), attached to Oystercatcher restaurant on General Enríquez Gallo (a few blocks north of the Barceló Colón Miramar hotel), features a 12-metre skeleton of a humpback whale, skulls and bones of other cetaceans and preserved dolphins, all of which were washed ashore.
Twelve kilometres beyond the turn-off to Baños de San Vicente, the E-40 hits the little town of SANTA ELENA, sited on the eponymous peninsula, and recently made the capital of its own little province, also called Santa Elena.
Unremarkable in almost every way, the town’s sole attraction is the fascinating archeological museum of Los Amantes de Sumpa on the western outskirts of town, signposted from the main road a couple of blocks south of the road to Salinas. The museum is built on the site of one of the oldest burial grounds in South America, established from 6000 BC by the ancient Las Vegas culture, one of the first groups on the continent to start shifting from a totally nomadic lifestyle towards semi-permanent settlements. About forty years ago, some two hundred human skeletons were excavated here, including the remains of the lovers of Sumpa – the skeletons of a man and woman, about 25 years old when they died, buried facing each other, the woman with her arm raised over her head, the open-mouthed man with an arm on her waist. Their tomb, on display at the museum, makes an unforgettable sight, and the accompanying displays on the Las Vegas and other coastal cultures are excellent, ranging from funerary offerings such as shells, knives and colourful pebbles to a reconstruction of a typical montuvio house. Santa Elena is served by frequent buses from Guayaquil, and a taxi from the centre out to the museum should cost no more than $1.50. Alternatively, take a Salinas-bound bus and ask the driver to drop you at the turn-off to the museum, a short walk away.