One entire flank of Ecuador runs along the Pacific Ocean and that stretch is dotted with beaches and beach towns. They’re not the most fabulous beaches in South America, but there are some coastal highlights that travelers should know about. Use our travel guide to the Pacific Coast of Ecuador to plan your trip.
Exploring the Pacific Coast of Ecuador
We spent a couple of weeks traveling from San Lorenzo in the north to Montañita in the south hugging Ecuador’s Pacific Coast along what’s called the Ruta del Spondylus (named after a very rare type of mollusk that used to thrive in the area but is now endangered). Here are some highlights and observations along the way.
From the inland town of San Lorenzo, we drove west until we reached the Pacific where we paused to admire the ocean and have a lovely seafood lunch in one of the 10+ beach shack restaurants in the town of Las Peñas. Our calamari with rice (US$7) and mixed seafood with rice (US$9) were both worth the money and the wait (nothing moves too quickly on the coast).
We arrived at Playa Escondido, near Punta Galera, near dark. Playa Escondido is our favorite beach on the entire Pacific coast of Ecuador: petite, secluded, only lightly visited, swimmable, walkable, and clean. We saw many pelicans, frigates and kingfishers. Green sea turtles nest here and hatch in December. The beach is part of the Playa Escondido Ecological Refuge which was created by Canadian expat and life-long traveler Judith Barett.
For US$25 per person, you can stay in the Eco-Lodge that she runs. It’s a massive, traditionally built building of bamboo and thatch that has breezy, mostly open-air rooms with good nets over the beds, private showers and sinks, sea views, and hammocks. Rooms on the top floor have the best design and best views. All rooms share a pristine composting toilet.
You can also camp near the lodge in a large, flat, sandy area just off the beach with a covered picnic table with electricity, Wi-Fi, and shared showers and composting toilets (US$10 per person). Or rent one of the houses that are part of the operation. This is a great option for large groups since the houses offer multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, and private gardens. There’s also a restaurant here that serves guests and day trippers.
From Playa Escondido, we took a day trip to the surf town of Mopiche, about 40 minutes away, where the nearly 7 mile (11 km) long arced beach is very inviting and very popular. Surfers, swimmers, and fishermen were all in the water and economical hotels and beach restaurants abound here.
We also took a day trip to the towns of Same and Sua. Sadly, the town of Same is now dominated by a large condo development called Club Casa Blanca. The towers of that development rise over the northern half of town and the development has also made a large section of beach inaccessible to everyone but residents of Casa Blanca.
We fled Same and headed for Sua. Along the way, we stopped at Simon Pizza on the coastal highway for excellent pizza and Ecuadorean craft beer. About a dozen pizza options are offered in a range of sizes (US$7-US$25). Thanks for the tip, Peter Flick!
After a few more relaxing days on Playa Escondido, we continued south to dusty, laid back Canoa, about four hours away. Canoa is one of the most popular Pacific Coast destinations and, at nearly 11 miles (17 km) long it’s the longest beach in Ecuador. It has a pleasant backpacker beach hang feel with beach bars, yoga joints, and hotels and restaurants in all price points. We stayed at Bambú Restaurant & Hotel. At US$50 to US$100 per room, it’s not the cheapest place in Canoa, but it’s right on the beach and is an icon in the town. On a budget? You can pitch your tent at Bambú for US$10.
From Canoa, we continued south to the small city of Bahia de Caráquez which offers more long, straight beaches (and even some tide pooling opportunities). The city seems torn between becoming a more cosmopolitan place with high rise apartment buildings or keeping true to its sleepy coastal roots. The bay side of town was roasting hot and breezeless, but the ocean side was more comfortable.
We stayed at Casa Ceibo Boutique Hotel & Spa about 2.5 miles (4km) outside of the city and it was a good example of the cosmopolitan v. sleepy battle going on in the area. The property is a bit like a too-new Southern plantation surrounded by a very formal garden and a very resort-y pool complete with a swim-up bar. But all of that is located on the bay side of town next to bird-filled mangroves.
After we checked out of comfortable but conflicted Casa Ceibo, we headed out toward Ayampe, passing through the coastal city of Manta on the way with its fishing boats and ship fixers and builders, many working by hand. After a brief stop in the town of Montecristi (where we found some of their traditional hat makers), we continued south past an area of rare ceiba trees (species: Ceiba trischistandra) which have green bark which allows them to photosynthesize through their trunks.
Suddenly the scenery changed to a desert landscape that reminded us of the Middle East. Just as suddenly we were back in lush greenery. These two coastal microclimates make up Machalilla National Park which is also home to lovely Playa Los Fairolles. This is a truly gorgeous beach with a pale arc of sand penning in clear blue water. Try to visit during the week. This beach gets crowded on weekends.
We also recommend a brief stop in the town of Machalilla to see the boat builders and fishermen plying their crafts.
From Machalilla we continued south to nearby Puerto López, arriving in time for lunch at one of the many beachfront restaurants. We chose a place called Carmelita and they served us excellent fish and chips (called chicharron de pescado on the menu). Puerto López is not a particularly charming place so we continued on to nearby Ayampe.
In Ayampe we stayed at El Campito Art Lodge. Opened in 2013, this place is in a lush tropical forest close to (but not on) the beach and not far from a private reserve that has a population of the world’s smallest hummingbird. The grounds have plenty of birds as well, attracted by the many trees and plants.
Rooms and suites are modern and earthy with exposed brick, thatch, and bamboo. There are pool tables, ping pong tables, and a small plunge pool but Ayampe beach is just a 10-minute walk away. It’s a rocky beach that you’ll likely have to yourself (we did) with a few hostels and basic eateries on hand.
Some of the cacao grown on the grounds around El Campito Art Lodge is used by the owners of Pacha Chocolate, so we backtracked to their workshop and store, which is just north of Puerto López, to see what they were making. Pacha was started in 2013 with the goal of using only Ecuador’s original native cacao (not introduced varieties that are easier to grow). All items, including chocolate bars, cacao butter soap, raw cacao, and chocolate powder, are organic and made on the premises. The rich, smooth, bright chocolate bar we bought was 67% cacao and had cacao nibs mixed in for maximum deliciousness.
Montañita is one of the most famous and most popular (read: crowded) beach towns in Ecuador. We paused there to check out its Thai beach town vibe: Nightlife, surfing, surf schools, hostels galore, cold beer. Check. Then we moved on, eventually leaving the Pacific Coast of Ecuador behind and cutting inland to Guayaquil.
Ecuador’s coastal train
In a few years, it will be much easier to explore the Ruta del Spondylus and the Pacific Coast just by getting on and off a new coastal train. The Ecuadorean government has begun a project to construct the Tren Funero servicing 250 miles (400 km) from the inland city of Daule, near Guayaquil, along the entire Pacific Coast to Manta in the north. In between, the train will stop at Nobol, Guayaquil, Posorja, Playas, Engabao, Engunga, Chanduy, Atahualpa, Anconcito, Salinas, Libertad, Punta Blanca, San Pablo, Monteverde, Ayangue, Valdivia, Manglaralto, Montañita, Olón, La Rinconada, Ayampe, Salango, Puerto López, Los Frailes Beach, Machalilla, Puerto Cayo, Tanusas, San José, San Lorenzo, San Mateo, Playa Tarqui and Manta.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador