From La Libertad, a paved road runs 137km up the coast to Puerto Cayo – a stretch promoted as the Ruta del Sol, offering fantastic views of long, empty beaches and passing a string of modest fishing villages and resorts. At Puerto Cayo, a branch of the highway heads inland to the unremarkable town of Jipijapa, while a new coastal road continues to Manta. Along the Ruta del Sol sit the moderately interesting archeological museum at Valdivia and the attractive little seaside village of Manglaralto; most visitors give these a miss and head straight for laid-back Montañita, a favourite with surfers and a rapidly growing backpackers’ beach hangout. A little further north, the dry, featureless landscape gives way to lush vegetation as you enter the Cordillera Chongón-Colonche, where the road veers inland from the coast through thickly wooded hills. The next gringo stop is Alandaluz, an ecologically focused resort, while further north Puerto López is a base for whale-watching trips (June–Sept) and visits to the Parque Nacional Machalilla, which takes in a major tract of tropical dry forest, fabulous beaches and the Isla de la Plata – favoured by bird lovers as a cheaper alternative to the Galápagos Islands.
Getting to the various points along the Ruta del Sol is easy on the many buses running up and down the coastal highway. In high season (Jan–April) there are regular direct services from Guayaquil to Montañita and Olón. Otherwise, there are frequent year-round services from La Libertad to Puerto López (continuing to Manta, beyond), stopping at all the villages en route; Puerto López can also be reached on direct year-round services from Guayaquil, as well as from Manta or Jipijapa, north of the town.
Accommodation is either in the village centre or by La Punta, a calmer location 1km north. There’s plenty of choice, with new cheapies opening all the time, in which basic rooms, the occasional balcony and hammocks are generally standard. Discounts are often available in low season.
About 3km beyond Ayampe, the coast road emerges from the Cordillera Chongón-Colonche and passes Alandaluz (t02/2440790 or t09/4274684, wwww.alandaluzhosteria.com; $26–80), on the edge of the village of Puerto Rico. This is an award-winning ecological resort comprising thirty attractive two- to four-bed cabañas scattered around tree-filled grounds, with a magnificent high-roofed dining room, bar and lounge in a central bamboo building. The cabins are made of local, easily renewable materials, some units have special compost toilets to produce fertilizer, fruit and vegetables grow in organic gardens and water is meticulously saved and recycled; there are also newer, stone-built accommodation with fireplaces, flush toilets and even hot tubs. It remains a lovely, laid-back place to hang out for a few days, whether you want to lounge around on a private beach, use it as a base for visiting Parque Nacional Machalilla up the road, or take a tour to the resort’s private Cantalapiedra nature reserve and stay in a wood-and-thatch tower sleeping thirteen people. Although camping is possible ($5 per person), accommodation is expensive by backpacking standards (more luxurious cabins; $51–80). Nonetheless, Alandaluz has poured its profits back into the local community, establishing recycling centres, reforestation projects and workshops in sustainable farming and building methods, among various other programmes. Other accommodation nearby includes Swiss-owned La Barquita, 1km south (t04/2780051 or t09/3698818, wwww.labarquita-ec.com; $26–35), offering pretty beachfront rooms (including shared rooms with bunks from $9 per person) with mosquito nets, private baths and hot water. The restaurant and bar is in a gleaming, varnished wooden boat, making for a unique individual centrepiece.
Montañita is a small place, and everything is within easy walking distance of the seafront and the main street, Calle Principal. There’s an ATM (MasterCard and Visa) inside the Hotel Montañita, but it often runs out of cash, particularly at weekends, so don’t rely on it. Otherwise, the Farmacia San José changes traveller’s cheques for a hefty commission. Internet access is at Montañita Express (around $2 per hr), off Calle Chiriboga; they also have a tour agency, offering rappelling, whale-watching (in season), trekking, mountain biking and horseriding expeditions.
There’s a wide choice of café-restaurants in the centre, all of them cheap and most offering a seafood menu supplemented by pizzas, pasta, pancakes and tropical fruit juices. One highlight is Doña Elena, on the main street, who serves great sea bass caught by her fisherman husband. Hola Ola on Chiriboga does pretty good falafel, hummus and breakfasts. These are all good places to sit and people-watch as you wait for the sun to go down and Montañita’s nightlife to heat up, when bars rock to the likes of the Doors and parties unfold on the beach.
Some 37km out to sea from Puerto López, and reached using one of the tour companies there, Isla de la Plata is a small, scrubby island of just eight square kilometres, once the ceremonial centre of the Bahía culture (500 BC to 650 AD). Its name comes from the legend that the English explorer Sir Francis Drake buried a chestful of silver here in the sixteenth century – never discovered, of course. Today, the island’s fame derives more from its large population of marine birds, which are relatively fearless and allow close observation, attracting many visitors and giving it the sobriquet of “poor man’s Galápagos”. Yet this hackneyed phrase doesn’t do the island justice; it’s the only place in Ecuador – including the Galápagos – where blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies are found together.
From the landing point in Bahía Drake, two circular footpaths lead around the island, each taking three to four hours to complete, including time spent watching the birds and listening to the tour guide’s commentary. The most numerous bird species on the island is the blue-footed booby, though you can also see frigatebirds, red-billed tropicbirds and waved albatrosses (breeding season April–Oct), as well as sea lions, which are colonizing the island in small numbers. Visits usually include some snorkelling, which provides a glimpse of a fabulous array of colourful fish. You might also spot dolphins and manta rays on the boat ride, as well as humpback whales (June–Sept).
Just 4km north of Manglaralto, MONTAÑITA is like nowhere else on the southern coast. Crammed into the centre are straw-roofed, bamboo-walled hostales and pizzerias advertised by bright wooden signs, while tanned, chilled-out gringos lounge around in shorts and bikinis and surfers stride up the streets with boards under arm. There’s a certain 1960s, dope-fuelled atmosphere to Montañita that may not appeal to everybody, reaching a height during la temporada from January to April. Outside these months, visitors dwindle and the skies cloud over, but the hotels stay open all year catering to the steady stream of surfing addicts.
The town’s transformation from isolated fishing village to backpacker hangout has been brought about by some of the best surfing conditions in Ecuador; waves are strong, consistent and range from one to three metres in height, and there’s a long right break lying off the northern end of the beach by the rocky promontory of La Punta. The best waves coincide with the summer months (Jan–April), when the water temperature averages 22–25°C. Every February, surfing fever reaches a peak during the international surfing competition held here over Carnaval, which attracts contestants from as far away as the US and Australia.
Surfboards (tablas) can be rented for about $18 a day at a number of places in the centre, such as Tikilimbo and Balsa House. Montañita’s waves are best suited to experienced surfers, but beginners can get in on the action by taking one-to-one lessons with the Montañita Surf Club on the waterfont ($20 for a 2hr lesson; they also rent out boards and equipment).
Parque Nacional Machalilla, mainland Ecuador’s only coastal national park, protects the country’s last major tract of tropical dry forest – now a mere one percent of its original size. The forest is notable for the remarkable contrast between the vegetation at sea level and that covering the hills rising to 800m above the coastline. The dry forest, panning in from the shore, comprises scorched-looking trees and shrubs adapted to scarce water supplies and saline soils, including many different cactuses, gnarled ceibas, barbasco trees and algarobbo (able to photosynthesize through its green bark). Also common are highly fragrant palo santo trees, whose bark is burned as incense in churches. A short hike east into the hills brings you into the wholly different landscape of coastal cloudforest, moistened by a rising sea mist that condenses as it hits the hills, where a dense covering of lush vegetation shelters ferns, heliconias, bromeliads, orchids and bamboos, as well as a great variety of animals and birds. The two different habitats can be observed on a ten-kilometre trail leading from the community of Agua Blanca, north of Puerto López, up to the San Sebastián cloudforest area. Agua Blanca sits near one of the most important archeological sites on the coast, the former settlement of Sangólome. Beyond this, the park takes in a number of pristine beaches, of which the most spectacular is Playa Los Frailes. Offshore areas include the tiny Isla Salango and the famous, bird-rich Isla de la Plata, the most popular destination in the park.
Pay your entrance fee at the park’s visitor centre in Puerto López at the brown-and-white thatched building opposite the market, on Eloy Alfaro (t05/2300170). The three types of tickets, all good for five days, allow access to the mainland ($12) or Isla de la Plata ($15), or provide entrance to both ($25). Arriving at the coastal sections of the park is easy on any of the buses running north along the coast road. Inland targets, such as the villages of Agua Blanca and Río Blanco, are not served by buses, but can be reached by camioneta ($5–6) from Puerto López, or on tours (around $35) offered by some of the town’s operators and hotels, including Naturis and Hostal Tuzco.
The weather is typically rainy, hot and sunny in summer (Jan–April), and dry, slightly cooler and overcast the rest of the year, with average year-round temperatures hovering around 23–25°C (73–77°F).
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.
Beyond Salango, the coast road cuts across the brow of a hill and down to PUERTO LÓPEZ, a small fishing town strung along a wide, crescent-shaped bay. Enjoying an undeniably picturesque setting, the town’s golden sands are set off by the turquoise waters of the ocean and the green hills rising on either side.
At close quarters Puerto López is a rather untidy place with potholed streets, crumbling buildings and a far-from-spotless beach. Still, the town itself is improving all the time, and the surge of morning activity from busy fishermen and the swarm of children playing in the breakers after school give the place a spirited atmosphere.
Most visitors come to explore the surrounding beaches and forests and the Isla de la Plata, all part of the nearby Parque Nacional Machalilla; its headquarters and information centre are based here at García Moreno and Eloy Alfaro. Puerto López is also one of the country’s main centres for whale-watching (June–Sept), when hundreds of humpbacks arrive off the coast and tour operators fight over the hundreds of visitors who come to see them.