Ecuador’s Coastal Region
Spectacular “green” beaches, nature reserves, archeological sites dating back to pre-Columbian times, and a unique wildlife are distinct attractions here.
Ecuador’s sunny beaches on the Pacific coast are a great place to relax after climbing the Andes, exploring the jungle, or island hopping in the Galapagos. From north to south these beautiful beaches stretch along this coast among mangrove forests and palm trees. They border harbors, fishing villages and modern cities, such as Guayaquil, the commercial capital of the country in the province of Guayas.
Other provinces in this coastal region are Esmeraldas, Los Rios, Manabi and El Oro, made famous for its production of bananas.
The modern Simón Bolívar International Airport, located in Guayaquil, with a network of connections to the U.S. and the rest of the world, is one of the country’s main points of entry together with Quito, Ecuador’s capital, high in the Andes. Guayaquil is also the nation’s main port providing easy access to lovely Pacific resorts by land, sea or air. (The city of Esmeraldas in the northernmost province of the region, as well as the coastal towns of Manta and Salinas, have municipal airports.)
The Pacific region is also rich in protected areas, including mangrove forests and islands flourishing with wildlife. The Island of La Plata, for example, harbors colorful birds that can otherwise be found only in the Galapagos Islands, while Santa Clara Island is the greatest marine bird refuge in Ecuador. Between June and August some of these offshore islands become a shelter for humpback whales migrating from Antarctica to breed in Ecuador’s warm waters. In addition, lovely resort towns such as Salinas and Bahia de Caraquez have a wonderful tourism infrastructure, and are surrounded by tropical dry forests and archeological sites.
The region’s climate varies from hot and dry in the north to hot and humid in the south. Several national parks such as Machalilla and Manglares-Churute provide endless opportunities for eco-adventurers to explore.
Called the green province, this area near the border with Colombia holds several attractions that range from wonderful resorts and small fishing villages to intriguing archeological sites and ecological reserves. Its capital city is a main port and terminal for the nation’s oil pipelines, thus a city infrastructure is in place. But the main attractions are the beaches in the southern part of the province, as well as the Cayapas-Mataje Ecological Reserve, which is located to the north. Atacames, a year-round resort just 19 miles from the city of Esmeraldas, has a good tourism infrastructure with a choice of many hotels, seaside restaurants, bars and markets that sell handicrafts, such as jewelry and coral ornaments, at low prices.
Two miles to the south, Sua is a picturesque fishing village that also offers comfortable hotel rooms and a delicious cuisine, while the island of Muisne, 28 miles to the south, is popular for its calm surf and pristine beaches.
This northeastern part of this province is also home to the vibrant Afro-Ecuadorian culture, which took roots here in the 16th century. At that time a group of African slaves, brought by the Spaniards to work the gold mines in neighboring Colombia, managed to escape and found freedom in what is today Ecuador. About 500,000 former slaves would settle here. Some later migrated to the Andes where they founded the town of Chota. With time, these early settlers that remained in the coast began to intermarry with the native indigenous population, including the Cayapas, Chachis, Niguas and Campaces, forming a new ethnic group called Zambos. In addition, many Afro-Ecuadorians are noted for their musical talents and play native instruments such as the marimba, the bombo, and the guasa, all of which are handmade from tropical wood, fruits, sugar and palm trees native to this coast.
The best time to go to Esmeralda is during any of the region’s colorful festivals. The San Lorenzo marimba festival lasts three days in May and the August Fiestas de San Lorenzo brings scores of revelers from all over the country to this normally sleepy backwater town.
This province also features several ecological reserves, along with seaside resorts offering a large variety of hotels. Accommodations in the city of Guayaquil include international hotel chains, and modern convention facilities. Ecuador’s largest city, located on the banks of the Guayas River, is also the commercial capital of the nation. This historic city, founded in 1534, enjoyed a reputation as South America’s most important port in colonial times. Today, Guayaquil still stands as Ecuador’s main port and continues to develop as a modern metropolis.
In the last few years the city has undergone important renovations and enhancements. Guayaquil’s main attractions include the historical Las Peñas District perched atop the Santa Ana Hill, the Metropolitan Cathedral, Seminary Park (which harbors the area’s iguana population), the Civic Center with its modern auditorium, the General Cemetery adorned with Italian marble sculptures, and the giant Clock Tower. Malecon 2000 – the newly remodeled river boardwalk – is a multimillion-dollar project that showcases the complete restoration of the city’s waterfront district with its shops, restaurants, museums and IMAX Theater. The area has become a lively spot for families who like to stroll along the river at night, enjoying its many amenities, which include a modern park with benches, pools and fountains.
El Parque Historico and the Botanical Gardens are protected areas, which serve as home to different species of palm trees, orchids, heliconias, bromeliads, cacti and several fruit trees. This is also a habitat for birds and butterflies, caimans, crocodiles, iguanas, harpy eagles, parrots, sloth and many more species kept in a semi-captive state on beautiful patches of mangrove forest. On the cultural or historic side of the park, a reconstruction of a late 19th century waterfront, features original homes and buildings of the era, as well as a cocoa and banana plantation showcasing the lowlands way of life.
Near the Malecon, Santa Ana Hill is another recreational spot for families and couples. This old part of town is located on a hill dominated by a lighthouse. A long staircase takes visitors to the top while passing a series of shops, eateries and outdoor cafes on either side of the steps. Guayaquil’s modern shopping centers are brimming with business with several floors of fashionable stores, restaurants and movie houses.
Leaving the city and heading toward the ocean, visitors reach Playas, 62 miles southwest along the Pacific coast. Shrimp farms, coconut palm trees and eateries offering a variety of tasty seafood dishes surround this beach community.
Driving north along the coast to the tip of the Santa Elena Peninsula, 90 miles from Guayaquil, Salinas is a thriving beach resort offering an assortment of quality hotels. This modern beachside city is ideal to practice watersports such as jet-skiing, wind-surfing and snorkeling, and is world famous for its deep-sea fishing. Farther up the coast, Punta Blanca is yet another friendly beach town great for watersports. Other coastal attractions are Punta Carnero, great for amateur fishing, and Montañita, a hot spot for surfing.
Nature lovers will enjoy exploring the Manglares-Churute Ecological Reserve, 30 miles from Guayaquil, at the mouth of the Guayas River. This protected area of mangrove forests is home to several species of birds, such as lesser egrets, brown pelicans and ducks. Other animals that thrive in the Reserve include howler monkeys, sloth and boas.
Another impressive nature reserve is the Cerro Blanco Woodland Reserve, located just 9 miles outside of the city. This stunning 5,000 acres of tropical dry forest boast an enormous range of flora and fauna, including the famous Red Foreheaded Parrot, an endemic specie. Cerro Blanco constitutes 2% of the tropical dry forests left on the planet.
Not to be missed is the Cacao Route, a new agro-tourism initiative promoting the country’s rich cacao heritage, which features four historical haciendas on a stretch that runs from the southwest of Guayaquil to the northeast of Napo. These lovely estates welcome visitors for a good tasting of Ecuador’s famous chocolate, and learn all about its crops and production. Guests can also go horseback riding, hiking and swimming.
The San Pablo and Caracol rivers flank the town of Babahoyo later joining the Guayas River. For a taste of life along the river, take an interesting sailing tour down the Babahoyo while passing by communities of campesinos who live off the land, sowing crops and raising cattle. A series of floating houses along the river are unique to this area. One of Babahoyo’s more notable attractions is the Miraculous Waterfall, a cascading water spring located about 21 miles outside of town. Many in the area say the springs have healing powers.
Noteworthy attractions in the city of Babahoyo include the lush gardens of Parque 24 de Mayo and the cathedral with its huge mosaic of the Virgin Mary. A visit to the Vinces district, also called Little Paris, gives tourists a sense of the city’s past with a view of many well-preserved colonial mansions once belonging to wealthy cocoa merchants.
Located along the central part of Ecuador’s Pacific Coast, Manabí is known for its beautiful beaches that extend for 168 miles along the coast. The province is also home to Manta, Ecuador’s second largest port, and Machalilla National Park noted for its rich vegetation and large variety of wildlife. The quality of its pottery and Panama hats are other renowned assets.
Manta provides a good selection of hotel facilities and its main beach, Murcielago, features a seaside boardwalk with a variety of restaurants and bars. The tiny village of Montecristi is famous worldwide for its production of high quality Panama hats. In La Pila, town artisans are noted for sculptures and replicas of Pre-Columbian ceramics.
Moreover, this fascinating province is graced by virgin beaches and archeological sites from the time of the Valdivia culture, said to be the oldest in America, and noted for its large canoes built of balsa wood and intricate pottery dating back to 3,800 B.C. The famous Venus of Valdivia, an armless female figure that was used in a variety of rituals, is said to be the oldest ceramic in the Americas. Many of these local artifacts are exhibited at the Central Bank Museum in Manta, showcasing the province’s ancient cultures.
The Island of La Plata in Machalilla National Park is inhabited by colorful birds that can only be found in the Galapagos Islands (so much so, the island has been nicknamed “the poor man’s Galapagos”). In addition, Machalilla National Park is a great spot to watch the humpback whales that come here from Antarctica between June and August, their breeding season. South of the coast, Santa Clara is the largest bird refuge in the country. The city of Bahía de Caráquez is located in a sandy peninsula in the western coast of Ecuador. During the last two decades it has developed into one of the country’s most attractive resort areas, easily accessible from both Quito and Guayaquil.
Machalilla and Manglares-Churute provide endless opportunities for eco-adventurers. The Isla Corazón (heart Island) is located near Bahía de Caráquez, in the estuary formed by the Chone and Carrizal rivers. It is a protected area of mangrove forests in which many inhabitants are trained to serve as tourist guides.
Famous for its abundant production of high-quality bananas, El Oro is home to one of the nations major ports, Puerto Bolívar. The island of Jambeli is one of the province’s most popular tourist attractions, featuring calm-water beaches and mangrove forests. Other popular attractions in this region are whale-watching tours that depart from Puerto Bolivar and the Puyango Petrified Forest. South America’s oldest forest is home to an incredible variety of tree, vegetable and animal fossils that date back to prehistoric times and constitute one of the planet’s most important ecosystems.