Welcome to Ecuador!
We arrived in Ecuador with nothing planned and having done little research. After the disappointment that was Máncora, I was desperate for some good beach time. We hurried onto the next available bus out of Máncora going to Guayaquil, meanwhile researching the best coastal areas of Ecuador. It wasn’t long before I found Machalilla national park, nearby the sleepy beach town of Puerto Lopez, only 4 hours by bus from Guayaquil. Buses leave from Guayaquil frequently and cost $5.25 pp. The Puerto Lopez bus station is 2km from town and it costs 50c per person in a mototaxi to be taken to the centre or your hotel. (note: don’t ask the price or try to barter or they’ll think you don’t know the price and may try to charge you more).
Puerto Lopez is the quintessential Latin American seaside town. Fishermen wrestle with the birds for their catch at dawn, and a colourful collection of crumbling concrete and peeling wooden buildings line the streets in a delightfully rustic and ramshackle way. Locals and tourists coexist rather than being separated into different sections of town. There was a local school right across the road from our friendly family -run hostel. There were a surprising number of grey nomad travellers roughing it on backpacker budgets. It was not a loud party town, although there were no shortage of beachfront cabana’s selling $2 beers and long lists of cocktails.
Machalilla National Park
Just north of Puerto Lopez is the stunning Machalilla National Park, which incorporates some of Ecuador’s most beautiful beaches, as well as national forrest and two islands, Salango and Isla de la Plata. The latter is dubbed as “the poor man’s Galapagos”.
Los Frailes Beach & Hiking Trails
To reach Los Frailes is easy, simply go back to the bus station and jump on any of the local buses heading north (75c pp). The entry to the national park is right off the main road. It’s free but you need to enter your name, country and passport number in a log book.
There are mototaxi’s driving the remaining distance to Los Frailes Beach ($1 pp) or you can take the well-marked hiking path that passes several beaches and viewing points. We hiked there/took a moto back. Stops on the trail include Islote Sucre viewpoint, Priete Beach, La Tortuguita Beach and Las Fragatas viewpoint. The trail is clear and well-signposted. You can swim at Priete and Los Frailes beaches but not at La Tortuguila as the current is too strong. At Los Frailes you can rent umbrellas ($4) and buy drinks, ice creams and handicrafts.
Isla de la Plata
The only way to visit Isla de la Plata is with an organised boat tour. We paid $30 for a tour with Polo tours which included two guides (English and Spanish), lunch, snacks and snorkelling goggles. The snorkelling was a little anti-climatic. The coral was too deep. There were some colourful fish but they were difficult to see. The turtles were the most interesting marine life and better seen from above. The boat left at 10am and took around 1 hour to reach the island. On the island you can choose between five different hiking routes. Which one you take will probably depend on your guide and what the group decides as a whole, as the guide doesn’t want people hiking off on their own. Near the start of the track we saw brightly coloured caterpillars in shades of red, green and yellow.
There are four main species of birds that live on Isla de la Plata. The blue footed Boobies nest on the ground and seem to have no fear of humans so we were able to see them up close. The Red-footed booby, the Nazca booby and Frigate birds can also be found but are usually flying or nesting in the trees. A zoom lens is beneficial, although all of my photos were taken on a 18-55mm SLR. This time of year (February) there are many young chicks. Our guide told us that a diet of sardines is what causes the blue-footed booby’s blue feet and they don’t develop the blue hue until they are around two years old. Male Frigate birds puff out their red chests to attract a mate. As it’s not currently mating season, it was difficult to see this in action but we spotted a few in the distance in the trees. Charles Darwin dubbed the Frigate bird “the Condor of the sea” due to their wingspan.
Agua Blanca, an indigenous village, is $5 to enter and includes a guided tour of the museum, a short nature walk and a visit to sulphur pools. Agua Blanca is located on the road between Puerto Lopez and Los Frailes and is clearly signposted. It’s a 5km hike from the gate to the museum or you can catch a moto for $4.
Other things to do in Machalilla
There are some other hikes you can do in the national park, although we didn’t do them. I believe some require a guide or you may be able to arrange a tour with one of the agencies in Puerto Lopez.