Machalilla National Park
Ecuador’s only coastal national park, set up in 1979, preserves what’s left of the country’s tropical dry forest that once stretched all the way to Panama. Only about 1 percent of the original forest remains in Ecuador, and the park contains most of it—about 60,000 hectares.
In contrast to the somewhat barren backdrops in other coastal areas, this is the most beautiful stretch of Ecuador’s coast, with densely forested hills, crowned by Opuntia candelabra cacti and palo santo trees, sloping down to pristine peaceful beaches. Off the coast, the islands of Salango and La Plata make great day trips, the latter famous for its birdlife, including frigates, boobies, and waved albatross.
Of course, the biggest wildlife attraction is the singing, somersaulting population of humpback whales that visit June–September.
There are several prices for park entrance, which can be bought in Puerto López at the park office (Machalilla and Atahualpa, tel. 5/230-0102, turismo [at] puertolopez [dot] gov [dot] ec, daily), including a full ticket covering the mainland and Isla de la Plata ($20), Isla de la Plata only ($15), and the mainland only ($12).
Isla de la Plata
The moniker “the poor man’s Galápagos” is a little unfair to this small island 37 kilometers northwest of Puerto López. Any comparison with the famous archipelago is bound to come up short, but Isla de la Plata is well worth a day trip, which can be combined with whale-watching in the summer months. The island’s name (Silver Island) arose from a legend that English sea captain Francis Drake buried treasure here after an assault on a Spanish galleon at the end of the 16th century.
These days, the main treasures are the wildlife. Boats land at Drake Bay, and there are two circular paths through the hills, commanding sweeping views of the interior down to the cliff-tops on the opposite side. The shortest and most popular walk, Sendero Machete, takes about three hours.
Highlights include blue-footed and masked boobies, which peer curiously at you as you pass within a few meters of them. There are also frigate birds, red-footed boobies, and waved albatross, most commonly on view April–October. The island has a small colony of sea lions, but it’s rare to see them.
Note that there is very little shade, so bring sunscreen and a hat. The day trip usually finishes with swimming and snorkeling among tropical fish in the bay.
Agua Blanca and San Sebastián
The most accessible point to explore the park’s dry forest is Agua Blanca, a village inhabited by some 300 indigenous people and an important archaeological site of the Manteño culture that lived here A.D. 800–1500. Many of the most interesting artifacts have been moved to the museum in Salango, but there is an interesting collection of sculptures, funeral urns, and slightly bizarrely, pickled snakes.
A guided tour of Agua Blanca ($5) includes the museum and a two-hour forest walk that includes the Manteño ruins. The forest is filled with towering ceibos, barbasco, and fragrant palo santo trees, whose wood is burned as incense and doubles as mosquito repellent. There are spectacular views up to San Sebastián from lookout points, and the tour ends with a refreshing but pungent dip in a natural sulfur pool, considered sacred by local indigenous people.
Farther inland, the landscape rises to 800 meters, where dry forest becomes cloud forest in San Sebastián. This virgin forest can be explored on a four-hour, 20-kilometer hike or horseback ride ($15 pp) with a mandatory guide ($20 per group) hired in Agua Blanca or Puerto López. It can be done in a day, but you can also camp overnight or stay with local villagers. The forest boasts many species of orchids as well as howler monkeys, anteaters, and more than 350 species of birds.
Playa los Frailes
Pristine waters, a perfect crescent-shaped beach, a backdrop of terra-cotta cliffs and lush forested hills—Los Frailes is rightly regarded as one of Ecuador’s most spectacular beaches. It is a special place, and if you come early enough, you may have it to yourself. Swimming and sunbathing can be accompanied by a three-kilometer walk to the black-sand cove of La Playita and Playa La Tortuguita, which offers good snorkeling.
Los Frailes is 10 kilometers north of Puerto López. There are guided tours, but it’s easy to visit on your own. Taking a bus to the entrance necessitates an unpleasant 40-minute hike up the road. Alternately, take a taxi from Puerto López and arrange a collection time ($5 one-way, $10 round-trip). It’s possible to combine Agua Blanca and Los Frailes in one day. Note that if you only plan to visit the beach, you still have to pay the $12 national park entrance fee.
Getting to Machalilla National Park
To get to Agua Blanca and San Sebastián, you can take a bus north from Puerto López and then walk the dusty five-kilometer trail up a dirt track, or better, hire a mototaxi ($5 one-way, $10 round-trip). Alternately, take a guided tour from Puerto López.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition