Southeast of the capital, bustling ESCUINTLA ranks as Guatemala’s third largest city with a population of around 130,000. Despite its size there’s nothing to see here, but you do get a good sense of life on the coast – its heat, pace and energy, as well as the frenetic industrial and agricultural commerce that drives it. The city dominates this stretch of Pacific coast, along with Puerto San José, formerly its most important port – though neither place is at all attractive. In the city centre, below the plaza a huge, chaotic market sprawls across several blocks, spilling out into 4 Avenida, the main commercial thoroughfare.
East of Puerto San José, it’s 13km to IZTAPA, a venerable little place that’s an important base for sport-fishing. Iztapa is Guatemala’s oldest port – Spanish leader Pedro de Alvarado built boats here that took him to Peru and back. There’s little sense of this historical past in Iztapa today but the sleepy little town does have a vague, faded charm and a nice setting on the bank of the Canal de Chiquimulilla. The sweeping black-sand beach is on the eastern side at a separate village called Pueblo Viejo – a bridge (US$2/car) spans the canal. There’s pretty reliable surf here with right-handers and an occasional hollow, and no crowds, with only a couple of local surfers.
Beyond Iztapa a paved road traces the 25km coastline from Pueblo Viejo to Monterrico through a littoral landscape punctuated with loofa farms. Patches of this coastline are being developed but there are still vast empty stretches of clean, dark sand to enjoy if you pull down one of the side tracks.