The northern coast
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Viewed by many Ecuadorians as the nation’s playground, the northern coast is home to dozens of popular beach resorts, all within a day’s drive of the capital. Busloads of serranos trundle down from the highlands to fill the resorts during weekends and holidays, making the most of the fun-loving and relaxed costeño spirit. Despite its popularity, the north coast is still relatively undeveloped, and you’ll be able to find peaceful hideaways even at the busiest times. The area also holds mangroves, rocky cliffs, tropical wet forests, scrubby tropical dry forests, hidden fishing villages and forgotten ports, as well as some of the least explored parts of Ecuador outside the Oriente.
At the coast’s northern tip near Colombia, San Lorenzo acts as the launching pad for trips to several little-visited destinations. The coast from La Tola down to Esmeraldas features long and often deserted beaches, whose potential has only recently been discovered. On the other side of Esmeraldas are some of Ecuador’s most popular resorts, such as Atacames, loaded with beachfront bars, music and cocktails, or the smaller villages of Tonsupa, Súa, Same and Tonchigüe where fishing boats are giving way to beach towels and hotels.
Past the rocky Punta Galera is Muisne, a less hectic resort on an offshore sand bar, from where a road loops inland and back to the sea at Pedernales and the closest beaches to Quito. Further south, oceanside cliffs and sleepy coves make good geography for a cluster of hideaways, and the long beaches return at the surfing hangout of Canoa, extending all the way to San Vicente. Across the Río Chone estuary, Bahía de Caráquez is one of Ecuador’s smarter resorts, while Manta is the country’s exuberant second port and boasts a few beaches of its own. Portoviejo is the staid inland provincial capital of Manabí province, whose locals favour the nearby resorts of Crucita, San Jacinto and San Clemente.
Four main roads from the highlands run to the north coast; from Ibarra to San Lorenzo, running parallel to the largely disused railway; from Quito via Calacalí or Aloag; and from Latacunga via Quevedo. A fifth route from Otavalo via Quinindé is also nearing completion. Once you’re at the sea, it’s easy to get around on the paved coastal road, the Vía del Pacífico (E15), which runs the length of the shore. After heavy rains, washouts on roads to and around the coast are common and journey times are likely to be much greater.
The area has two distinct seasons, but the climate changes slightly the further south you go. Daytime average temperatures hover around 26°C (79°F) across the region throughout the year, with greater rainfall and humidity north of Pedernales; to the south there’s very little rain from June to November. The wet season (Dec–May) features clear skies interrupted by torrential afternoon rains that can wash out roads. Mosquitoes tend to be more of a problem at this time, and Esmeraldas province has one of the highest incidences of malaria in the country, so take plenty of insect repellent; see Basics. During the dry season the days are a little cooler and consistently cloudy, without as much rain. The most popular resorts get very crowded during national holidays and the high season (mid-June to early Sept & Dec–Jan), when hotel rates can be double the low-season prices and rooms are harder to come by.
One of Ecuador’s most agreeable coastal resort towns, BAHÍA DE CARÁQUEZ, an upmarket place of spotless, white high-rise apartment blocks, broad tree-lined avenues and leafy parks, sits on a slender peninsula of sand extending into the broad mouth of the Río Chone. Yachts from around the world bob and sway in the town’s marina.
Following mudslides and a damaging earthquake in 1998, Bahía (as it’s called for short) started afresh, proclaiming itself a ciudad ecológica, an eco-city, and set up a number of ambitious projects, including recycling, permaculture, composting, reforestation, conservation and environmental-education programmes. Even the tricicleros paint their “eco-taxis” green, adorning them with signs reading “Bienvenidos Bahía Eco-Ciudad”. The Día del Mangle fiesta on February 28 marks the declaration with music and events such as mangrove planting in the estuary.
Bahía lies near several wonderful natural attractions, including tropical dry forests, empty beaches and mangrove islands teeming with aquatic birds. The vast shrimp farms in the estuary displaced more than sixty square kilometres of mangrove forest during the 1980s and 1990s, with the obvious exception of the world’s first organic shrimp farm, a pollution-free enterprise that also helps in reforestation. Local tour agencies, some of which have played a major role in the local environmental movement, organize a number of good excursions in the area.
Bahía is a pleasant town for a stroll – or taking a cruise with a triciclero ($5 per hour) – following the Malecón around the peninsula and viewing the busy river estuary on the east side, or the rough rollers coming to shore on the west. Locals swim and surf here, but to find more generous expanses of sand, take a taxi to the beaches south of town like Punta Bellaca (7km away; arrange return journey in advance). A good complement to the seaside promenade is the short push up to Mirador La Cruz, on top of the hill at the foot of the peninsula, which affords grand views of the city and bay.
In town, the renovated Museo Bahía de Caráquez del Banco Central houses pre-Columbian artefacts, such as a Valdivian belt of highly prized spondylus shells from 3000 BC, plus a replica balsa raft, as well as temporary art exhibitions.
The expanses of pale sand streaking west of Esmeraldas sustain some of the country’s most popular seaside resorts. During the high season (mid-June to Sept & Dec–Jan), a deluge of vacationers descends from the highlands, but the real crush comes during Carnaval, Semana Santa, Christmas and New Year, when the price of a room – if you can find one – can double. Atacames is the most famous and raucous resort, while others such as Súa and Same offer a more tranquil atmosphere, but can be just as busy at peak times. The beaches break around the dry and rocky headland of the Punta Galera, whose cliffs and secluded coves provide the quietest and most isolated beaches in the region, giving way to mangrove forests around Muisne, one of the remoter seaside resorts of the province. Regular buses travel between Muisne and Esmeraldas.
Relaxed by day and brash, noisy and fun at night, ATACAMES is one of Ecuador’s top beach resorts, always crowded during holidays and at Carnaval, when it’s literally standing room only on its dusky beach. The town is divided by the tidal waters of the Río Atacames, which parallel the shore for about 1km, resulting in a slender, sandy peninsula connected to the mainland by a footbridge and, further upstream, a road bridge.
Most of the bars, hotels and restaurants in Atacames are on the peninsula and the shops and services are on the other side of the river, along the main road from Esmeraldas and around the little parque central. By the beach, the Malecón is the place for night-time action: salsa, merengue, pop and techno pummel the air from rival speakers, while partiers dance – or stagger – to the beat and knock back fruity cocktails. On weekdays and during the low season the crowds evaporate, but you can always count on a smattering of bars being open.
Apart from the beach and the bars, there’s not much more to Atacames, though the Museo Acuario Marino, opposite the Tahiti hotel towards the northern end of the Malecón, presents starfish, turtles, caiman, seahorses and piranhas in fairly miserable conditions. Far more uplifting are the humpback whales visible off the coast between June and September (boats usually depart from Súa); Tahiti (t06/2731078) on the Malecón is among many hotels offering whale tours. Diving trips are offered by Fernando Valencia, the owner of Tahiti (number above).
The sea here has a strong undertow that has claimed a number of victims, despite the occasional presence of volunteer lifeguards. Crime is also an unfortunate element of the quieter beach areas, so stay near the crowds, avoid taking valuables onto the beach and stay off it completely at night. The beachside market, mostly stocked with trinkets and sarongs, sometimes has black-coral jewellery for sale – a species under threat and illegal to take out of the country.
Located some 35km south of the big resorts, luxury seaside villas and condominiums, MUISNE lies just beyond the range of most serrano vacationers, giving the place a slightly abandoned feel. Nonetheless, the relaxed and friendly air draws a reasonable amount of travellers down to this unusual, rather exotic resort, sitting on a seven-kilometre palm-fringed sand bar amid the mangrove swamps just off the mainland, reached only by boat from the small town of El Relleno, across the Río Muisne.
As you dock, first impressions are not promising. The salty breeze, equatorial sun and high humidity bring buildings out in an unsightly rash of peeling paint and mouldy green concrete, giving the place a dilapidated appearance – upkeep and construction are expensive, as materials have to be laboriously hauled in from the dock.
The island itself splits into two distinct parts, connected by the double boulevard of Isidro Ayora, which runs 2km from the docks to the beach. The town’s main shops and services cluster around the dock, where the police, post office and hospital are located, a close distance to the modest parque central on Isidro Ayora. Muisne’s main attractions lie at the boulevard’s other end, where crashing breakers and a broad, flat beach are fronted by a handful of inexpensive hotels, restaurants and the odd bar, all shaded by a row of palms.
For security reasons, do not take valuables onto the beach, walk on it at night or venture into deserted areas. From time to time you may notice pinprick-like stings when swimming in the ocean; these are caused by tiny jellyfish (aguamala), whose sting doesn’t last much longer than ten minutes. Locals claim a splash of vinegar relieves the pain – ask at a beachside restaurant.
ESMERALDAS is the largest industrial port on the north coast and capital of Esmeraldas province, whose economy is mainly driven by an oil refinery at nearby Puerto Balao, which links up to the Trans-Andean oil pipeline, snaking 500km from the Oriente. Despite the city’s shaky infrastructure and the slums that fester on the hillsides fringing the centre, serranos are still drawn here by the lively atmosphere and beaches at Las Palmas, an upmarket suburb at the north end of town, where the city’s bars, discos and the more expensive hotels and restaurants are found.
The tree-filled parque central is the focal point of this city of 125,000, and bustles with street vendors, shoeshiners and fruit-juice sellers. The town’s only real attraction is the Museo del Banco Central, in a sprightly new building on the corner of Bolívar and Piedrahita, housing a good collection of regional pre-Columbian artefacts, particularly the wonderfully expressive ceramics of the La Tolita culture. The Centro Cultural Afro-Indio-Americano on Montalvo and Maldonado is where to find out more about Afro-Ecuadorian culture and history. The busy market, a block west of the Apart Hotel Esmeraldas, is an education in exotic fruits. The biggest city fiesta is the Independence of Esmeraldas on August 5, which includes dancing, processions and an agricultural fair, while around Carnaval there’s the Festival Internacional de Música y Danza Afro, held on Las Palmas beach, featuring marimba players, and traditional Afro-Hispano-American music and dance.
Esmeraldas town and province derive their name from the first visits of Spanish conquistadors, who entered coastal villages around here in 1531 and supposedly found emeralds the size of “pigeons’ eggs”; the moniker stuck, despite years of fruitless expeditions for phantom emerald mines.
Before the Conquest, the Esmeraldas coast was so heavily populated with indigenous tribes that Bartolomé Ruiz, who passed through the area on orders from Francisco Pizarro five years earlier, was afraid to land and anchored in the bay instead. The native population declined rapidly during the sixteenth century, probably due to the introduction of foreign diseases, Spanish military probes and the arrival of Africans as slaves and soldiers, which dramatically changed the region’s ethnic and cultural character.
The Afro-Ecuadorians here, possibly the descendants of escaped slaves from Guinea who survived a shipwreck off the Esmeraldas coast in 1553, had control of much of the region by the early seventeenth century, which hardly bothered the Spanish, who preferred to leave alone its impenetrable forests and hostile denizens. Pedro Vicente Maldonado, who became the provincial governor in 1729 at the age of 25, made the most successful exploration of the region in the colonial era, building the first road down from the highlands to the coast as far as Puerto Quito.
Little else is known about the region during this period, save for an account by Irish explorer William B. Stevenson, who in 1809 followed Maldonado’s footsteps and uncovered the settlement at Esmeraldas, which then comprised 93 houses on stilts. Even then, the legend of the emeralds lived on, as Stevenson wrote that the province derived its name “from a mine of emeralds which is found no great distance from Esmeraldas-town…I never visited it, owing to the superstitious dread of the natives who assured me that it was enchanted and guarded by an enormous dragon”.
About 50km south of Bahía de Caráquez, set in a broad bay dotted with freighters, cruise ships and fishing boats, MANTA is a city of some 183,000 people and Ecuador’s largest port after Guayaquil. Divided by the Río Manta between the throbbing commercial centre to the west and the poorer residential area Tarqui to the east, the city is a manufacturing centre – but it’s the seafood industry that really drives the economy. Fish and shrimp processors and packers line the roads entering Manta, and the business of netting swordfish, shark and dorado is lucrative enough to draw US and Japanese fishing fleets to these abundant waters. President Rafael Correra refused to renew the lease for a major US air base here used for drug surveillance – unless Ecuador could build a base in Miami, which unsurprisingly was rejected. Plans are now afoot to build a large oil refinery to take up the economic shortfall created by the closure of the base.
Manta is also known as a lively, holiday destination; its main beach is relatively clean, regularly patrolled, lined with restaurants and packed at weekends. As a bustling modern port more manageable in size and temperament than Guayaquil, Manta is a good place to refuel and make use of the banks, cinemas and services of a busy urban centre. A new road skirting the coast to the southwest also makes it a gateway to undeveloped villages and beaches, as well as the more established resorts of the southern coast beyond Puerto Cayo, where the road joins the Ruta del Sol.
Manta’s tourist focus is the Playa Murciélago, a broad beach 1.5km north of the town centre, where from December to April the surf is good enough for the town to host international bodyboarding and windsurfing competitions. Swimmers should take care year round, as there is a strong undertow; there’s usually plenty else going on here at weekends, from music to volleyball. The Malecón Escénico, a strip of restaurants and bars with a car park, fronts the beach. The police advise against wandering to quiet spots beyond the Oro Verde, where robberies have been reported. A string of fabulous beaches graces the coast west of town, starting with Playa Barbasquillo and Playa Piedra Larga.
Opposite the Malecón Escénico at Calle 19, the Museo Centro Cultural Manta has an interesting collection of artefacts from the Valdivian culture, which flourished here from 3500–1500 BC, and the later Manteño culture, including fish-shaped ocarinas and beautiful zoomorphic jugs and flasks. Heading east down the Malecón, you’ll soon pass the Capitanía, by the entrance to Manta’s main port, frequented by warships, the odd millionaire’s yacht and countless container ships. Cruise liners tend to call between November and February, when the artesanía market at the Plaza Cívica, Malecón and Calle 13, is at its busiest and thronging with indigenous traders from Otavalo, who offer a decent selection of woven goods, jumpers and hammocks alongside more familiar coastal wares such as tagua carvings and Panama hats.
A block east is Manta’s leafiest corner, the main square of Parque Eloy Alfaro and the Parque de la Madre. Away from the shore, the old heart of the port features narrow streets and wooden buildings rising up the hill.
The turning for Muisne off the Vía del Pacífico is at El Salto, a collection of grimy roadside stalls, shacks and comedores, 11km to the east. From El Salto, the main road speeds south for 56km through land dotted with only the odd stilt hut, passing a turn-off to Mompiche (Km27) and then Chamanga (San José de Chamanga in full, 2km from the main road), from where there is regular transport to Pedernales.
Beyond Chamanga and into Manabí, the province of the central seaboard, the climate and scenery soon change from the lush greenery of Esmeraldas to an increasingly dry, scrubby landscape. South of Pedernales is a sparsely populated area of small settlements, the largest being Jama, 45km down the road, and a rolling shoreline interspersed with deserted beaches and the occasional secluded hotel. A further 41km away, after turning inland past shrimp farms and through agricultural land, the road rejoins the coast at Canoa, an attractive beach resort with good surfing. The beaches continue south from here for almost 20km down to San Vicente, a bustling town opposite the high-rises of Bahía de Caráquez, across the Río Chone estuary.
Down the coast from Jama and sitting at the upper end of a huge beach extending 17km south to San Vicente is CANOA, which has shifted from sleepy fishing village to laid-back beach resort, thanks largely to its fantastic surf and clean sands. With only a single paved street linking its shaded square to the sea, the town’s low-level hubbub is submerged under the continuous roar of breakers rising and falling on the shore.
It’s a lovely place to relax, with long, empty expanses of coastline and ample waves for surfing (good from Dec–April, best Jan–Feb; many hotels have boards for rent). At low tide you can take a horse ride or a walk to the sandy cliffs rising up through the haze in the north, where there’s a cave to explore; it’s best done with a local guide for safety. Trips to the Río Muchacho Organic Farm can be arranged at their office on 30 de Noviembre and Javier Santos, the second street on the right if walking up the main street from the beach.
A small, run-down town at the northwestern tip of the country, surrounded by sea inlets and mangrove swamps, SAN LORENZO isn’t exactly inviting with its ramshackle houses and pervasive sense of anarchy and disarray, evident in its dirty, potholed streets strewn with rubbish and periodically turned into muddy soup by the rain. Still, the town’s considerable number of Afro-Ecuadorians – largely the descendants of colonial African slaves and later labourers from the plantations and mines of Colombia – do provide a distinct cultural flavour, refreshingly different from the rest of the country, part of what sociologists call the “Pacific lowlands culture area”, extending down the coast from Panama to Esmeraldas province in Ecuador. One of its manifestations is the colourful sound of the marimba, the wooden xylophone whose driving rhythms are a key feature of music and dance on the north coast. The town has several groups that stage occasional performances, and it hosts an annual international marimba festival during the last week of May. You’ll also get plenty of fun and music at the town’s main fiesta from August 6–10.
San Lorenzo’s fortunes have long been tied to the railway from Ibarra. When the train opened in 1957, the population of this forgotten port doubled virtually overnight, but the anticipated economic boom never materialized; the train operated at a loss from the day it opened, and it became increasingly difficult to fund the repairs caused by frequent landslides and rockfalls. Damage from El Niño storms put an end to the full service in 1998, and it doesn’t look likely to reopen any time soon. The surviving portion of the railway runs only 25km inland to San Javier de Cachaví, and is serviced fairly regularly by a train that leaves when demand is sufficient. San Lorenzo is now connected by paved road to Ibarra and Esmeraldas; coastal through-traffic does not pass nearby, meaning San Lorenzo is once again becoming a forgotten port.