Santa Elena and Salinas
Just outside provincial capital Santa Elena is Museo Los Amantes de Sumpa. Around 200 skeletons were unearthed at this site in the 1970s, including the “Lovers of Sumpa”, a man and a woman found in an 8,000-year-old embrace. There’s no bigger contrast between old and new than the nearby resort of Salinas, a wannabe Miami Beach for Guayaquil’s rich set. It’s a comparatively expensive resort but has two sheltered beaches. The resort has thumping nightlife in the high season between December and April.
Cocos (doubles from $40) is the best budget option on the waterfront of Salinas, or splash out on colourful ecolodge Hosteria Ecológica el Faro (doubles $100 B&B) with spacious rooms and tropical gardens with resident parrots and monkeys
Ecuador’s biggest city has come a long way in the past 20 years. A once-rundown waterfront has been regenerated, winning UN development awards in the process. The waterfront Malecón area’s offerings range from historical monuments, artisan markets and botanical gardens to a new ferris wheel and several museums, notably Guayaquil en La Historia, which documents the city’s turbulent past. The climb through the artistic district of Las Peňas to the lighthouse at the top is another highlight, while the harbour and promenade of Puerto Santa Ana is the latest addition to the waterfront scene. Don’t miss the Iguana Park, beneath the neo-gothic cathedral, where reptiles roam free, and across the river, set in mangroves, caiman, monkeys and parakeets can be observed in the Parque Histórico.
Stay at the eclectic, Arabian-themed boutique Hostal Manso (doubles from US$55) opposite Malecón, or, for more comfort on the edge of the city, Nazu House has a swimming pool backed by forest (doubles from $90 B&B)
Playas and Puerto el Morro
The closest beach resort to Guayaquil is the vibrant Playas, as unpretentious as its name (which means beaches). At weekends in high season, between Christmas and Easter, it gets packed with people from the city escaping the heat. The main draw is the long beach and rows of beach cafes offering sumptuous specialities, such as shrimp ceviche and fried sea bass in garlic. The surfing is good here, too; but for a break from sun and sand, head a few miles east (half an hour by bus) to Puerto El Morro, where boat trips wind through the mangroves with opportunities to watch dolphins in the channel. There is also a small colony of frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies.
Stay at the Posada del Sueco (doubles from $58), on the edge of town, with its thatched rooms set among bougainvillea bushes
A Latin American beach party takes some beating so, if you’re looking to dance the night away, go to this surfer-friendly village. Those seeking a quieter beach break should head further north. For surfers, the rideable breaks reach two-to-three metres on good days, while for partygoers it’s busy at weekends, particularly between Christmas and Easter. Hola Ola and Caňa Grill are long-standing hotspots for drinking and dancing.
Stay in the bamboo bungalows of Nativa Bambu (from $110 B&B) on the northern edge of town
Machalilla national park and Isla de la Plata
This national park is one of the country’s few protected coastal regions, and boasts stellar scenery of tropical dry forest leading directly onto pristine beaches. Isla de la Plata, 25 miles off the coast is rather unfairly tagged “the poor man’s Galápagos” for its populations of frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies, as well as a small colony of sea lions. From June to September, humpback whales converge on these waters, with great opportunities to watch them twirling out of the ocean. The mainland national park contains tropical dry forest and cloud forest, and the crescent-shaped Playa Los Frailes is arguably the most beautiful beach in the country – and often deserted.
The best budget accommodation is in the village of Puerto Lopez in a cabin at Itapoa (hosteriaitapoa.com, doubles from $16) in a garden set back from the beach, or try the mid-range Hosteria Mandala (doubles from $40), which has decorated cabins in dense tropical gardens and serves excellent breakfasts
Locals shout from the rooftops that Panama hats are actually from Ecuador. The misconception dates to 1906 when the president, Eloy Alfaro, ordered more than 200,000 hats to be sent north for toiling workers constructing the canal. US president Theodore Roosevelt was pictured in newspapers wearing one during a canal visit and the name “Panama hat” stuck. The hats originate from the toquilla palm shoots farmed around Montecristi and there’s no better hat to be found than the tightly woven superfinos. They are far cheaper here than outside Ecuador but top-quality hats still fetch several hundred dollars (standard hats are far cheaper at under $50). Montecristi itself does not have a wealth of tourist attractions beyond hat shopping but its status as Alfaro’s birthplace, a hero of current president, Rafael Correa, has raised the town’s profile. A museum documenting the life of Alfaro is fascinating, together with a spectacular copper sculpture in the mausoleum.
There are very few good accommodation options in Montecristi so go to the fishing village of La Crucita (an hour by bus via Manta), which has an emerging kite-surfing scene. Stay at beachfront Hotel Voladores (doubles from $30)
Bahía de Caráquez
This small city has a spectacular location on the coast, perched on a sandy peninsula reaching from the mouth of the river Chone into the Pacific. It’s arguably the most ecologically sound urban area in Ecuador, thanks to a well-organised local effort. Around town, the museum Museo Banco Central has an excellent archaeological collection from the country’s oldest civilisation, Las Vegas, that lived on the Santa Elena peninsula to the south, from the eight century to the fifth century BC. Climb up the hill to Mirador La Cruz for spectacular views over the peninsula. The best eco-tourism is found on an excursion through the mangroves to Isla Corazon, which has a large frigatebird colony.
Stay at La Herradura (doubles from $50), which translated means “the horseshoe”, it’s one of the best hotels in town with an eclectic decor of saddles and wagon wheels
Although badly hit by the April 2016 earthquake, this fishing village has recovered and is still one of the most pleasant resorts in the country with a small, friendly, expat community. It’s also an excellent surfing spot: the 10 miles of beach break with no rocks, riptide or reef are good for beginners and advanced surfers, and it’s popular with kite surfers later in the year. For a taste of the region’s burgeoning eco-tourism, 10 miles north of town is the Rio Muchacho organic farm, which produces fruit, vegetables, jams, coffee and chocolate. The farm can be visited on a one-day tour or you can stay for a few days. Ride horses, catch freshwater shrimp and make your own organic dinner.
In Canoa, stay at friendly Hostal Amalur (doubles from $25) with colourful rooms and good Spanish food
A hilltop town in the southern Andean foothills, the pace of life in Zaruma is reassuringly slow and best enjoyed over a cup of coffee (the finest in Ecuador, it is claimed). It’s worth exploring the town’s mining heritage – the story goes that a local miner found a huge chunk of gold here in the 16th century and sent it to Spain as a gift for King Felipe II. The king promptly reduced taxes from one fifth to a one sixth of income, giving the El Sexmo mine its name. It is now a tourist attraction with an accompanying small museum. The dramatic hills in the region offer great walking and nearby Bueneventura reserve is rich in wildlife, including monkeys and 24 species of hummingbirds.
Stay at Hosteria Jardin (doubles from $50) where simple rooms are set in lush gardens
Puyango Petrified Forest
The largest petrified forest in South America covers about 6,000 acres in the south of Ecuador, just five miles from the Peruvian border. Experts believe that a volcanic eruption followed by a flood caused the petrification. Follow the trails to see fossilised plants, fish and ammonites dating from the Cretaceous period embedded in the tree trunks. The surrounding tropical dry forest hosts 130 species of birds, and a plunge in a stream is a welcome cool-off. Puyango is not very accessible but a couple of buses daily run to and from Machala (2.5 hours).
There is basic accommodation in the nearby village of Alamor but it is better to take a bus to Grand Hotel Americano (doubles from $50) in Machala or go to Zaruma
Ben Westwood is author of the Moon guide to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. To order a copy for £12.29 including UK p&p visit the guardian bookshop or call on 0330 333 6846