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By Seán Keenan | January 2, 2021
Extremely affordable, warm all year, less than five hours’ flight time from the U.S…. we’ve been flying the Ecuador flag at International Living for decades. If you’ve been a subscriber for anything more than a few months, you’ll know that we rate the country high on our shortlist of locations worldwide.
We’ve usually focused our coverage of Ecuador’s coast on the cities of Manta in the center and Salinas in the south. Both are key cities for the expat, with U.S.-style malls, large regional hospitals, big-box stores, airports, and high-end accommodation options in towering apartment buildings right on the beach. They’re one side of the story, but they’re not the full picture.
Recently, I took a trip along the coast between Manta and Salinas. The object of the trip wasn’t to focus my attention on the big cities but to take a good look at what lies between them.
La Ruta del Spondylus
Named after a rare deep-sea creature that’s something between an oyster and an abalone, the Spondylus Highway carves an efficient path along the coast between Manta and Santa Elena just north of Salinas. Air-conditioned, WiFi-enabled buses ply the route around the clock, with up to four services per hour. They’re cheap and comfortable (I paused my journey a few times and backtracked on occasion, but the whole distance costs less than $10 and takes about four hours).
The regular bus service also means that the amenities of the bigger cities are never more than a couple of hours away, so you can enjoy the benefits of coastal small-town living without needing to learn survival skills. Population clusters have grown around what were once fishing villages, usually based close to rivers which allow easy launching for the wooden boats of small fishing fleets. Between towns, the coastline is mostly untouched. A keen walker, surfer, or kayaker will have little difficulty finding empty beaches and bays to enjoy.
The rugged beauty of a wild, deep blue ocean meeting a craggy coastline of golden sandstone stretches beyond eyeshot to north and south. That’s worth bearing in mind because the towns themselves are more utilitarian than pretty. Let’s be honest here, planning laws in this part of the world are not as strict as they are in Europe or North America, with the result that, where humans have built, it’s not done within the interests of overall attractiveness.
Towns here are not the handsome, planned grids of the colonial mountain settlements founded by the Spanish conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries. Unmanaged development is rife. Streets get dusty, and muddy when it rains. Chickens roam freely along sidewalks, and those sidewalks come to an abrupt end at random intervals, made even more awkward by protruding manhole covers or casually strewn bicycles.
You get genuine warmth from the people.
But what you get instead of prettiness is inclusion. You get genuine warmth from the people you meet, and equal status in conversations. As a North American, even if you’re not considered wealthy at home, you’re significantly better off than most of the locals here. In some countries, that would create resentment. In Ecuador, at least in this part of it, there are none of the usual manifestations of that economic divide.
There’s no “blue-eye tax” on the price of goods or services; you’ll pay the same for a taxi ride as a local. The price of a meal is printed on the menu, and you won’t be charged more because you’re from out of town. Sure, on a Saturday night in Montañita touts will try to corral you into their bars and restaurants, but they do that to everyone passing by, regardless of origin. The best approach is to give in to it willingly and enjoy the fun.
A town of some 16,000 residents, Puerto López sits tucked into a river mouth cleft in the surrounding dry forest. Like most of the towns on this stretch of coast, it has a split personality depending on which side of the Spondylus Highway you choose to explore. On the inland side, the streets are mostly hard-packed dirt leading higher and higher into the hills.
As a rule of thumb, the farther you go into the interior, the poorer the neighborhoods get, eventually petering out into little clusters of very basic homes where local, partly indigenous families live. They’re perfectly safe to visit, and life in them runs along quite happily, but they’re not somewhere an expat would choose to live. There are some large, standalone properties in the hills above Puerto López where some expats reside, but they’re the exception rather than the rule and are sited for their views rather than the luxury of the neighborhood.
Almost everything practical, with the exception of Puerto López’s one U.S.-style supermarket, is on the inland side. Medical center, market, pharmacies, sports fields, bus station, and some of the tastiest street food for miles…it’s all on the interior section. Cross the highway, though, (and in Puerto López, you can do so with the help of traffic lights, which are a rarity in these parts), and you enter a completely different atmosphere.
An enormous amount of effort and investment has been put into the beach-side area of town, an area about four blocks deep, fronted by a long malecón promenade that runs for two miles alongside the wide, sandy beach. That walkway runs from the busy fish market and pedestrianized pier on the south side all the way to the parkland, residential, and hostel area on its northern end. The malecón is the focus of the Puerto López tourist industry, and here, that means whale-watching, boat trips to Isla de la Plata (dubbed “the poor man’s Galápagos”), and snorkeling off nearby Isla Salango.
Along the roadside which flanks the wide, tree-lined pedestrian walkway, craft markets, hotels, bars, restaurants, and cafés ply their trade, bringing a vibrant atmosphere to the locality. You’ll hear English spoken here, by ex-pats as well as by tourists, and find a useful branch of Banco Pichincha with an ATM out front— something which can feel quite rare along this stretch of coastline (there are ATMs in Montañita, around an hour’s drive to the south, but that’s about it).
A walkway from the southern end of the beach leads back into the center of town along the path of a small canal. It’s a good place for spotting some of the exotic birdlife that is so abundant in Ecuador, and the whole walkway, about half a mile of it, is planted with tropical flowers, shrubs, and trees. It’s a well-tended, bright addition to the town and an example of the efforts being made to turn Puerto López into a center for tourism. But there’s still a long way to go. Streets are not all well paved. Derelict or hopelessly crumbling units intersperse the better-kept businesses and houses on the main streets, and you’d have to be quite generous to describe the unwashed appearance of the town as “shabby chic.”
But on a bright morning, as the small-boat fishing fleet returns to the bay, and what seems like the entire population of the town gathers to drag the brightly painted boats up onto the sands, you can glimpse something of Puerto López’s true nature. Seabirds wheel above, waiting for scraps as the catch is prepared, right there on the sand, for the covered fish market at the southern side of the beach.
Buyers with nothing more sophisticated than a plastic bucket negotiate for giant shrimp and just-cut marlin steaks, before hurrying to neighboring towns to sell their purchases to hotels and restaurants. By 9 a.m, the charcoal grills in the market comedoresare already hot, and if it’s not too early for your tastes, you can sit shoulder to shoulder with the returned fishermen and tuck into the freshest grilled fish imaginable—dorado, tuna, marlin, or any number of smaller fish from snapper to seabass—served with fried plantain and salad, for less than $3.
If that doesn’t appeal, Puerto López offers numerous higher-end dining options, with the usual Tex-Mex, Italian, and international cuisine that you’d expect from a town with pretensions to becoming a resort. Those are mostly operating along the waterfront, and you can expect to pay less than $15 for a three-course meal with a bottle or two of local Club beer.
Just outside of town, northward, is the Pacha Chocolates Boutique, a bean-to-bar operation with an attractive dark-wood furnished café and garden area for trying out the wares. Pacha chocolate is a singular experience, and the robust, complex flavor is a long, long way from a bar of Hershey’s. Magnificent though it is, it may be a little overbearing for some. Consider it the chocolate equivalent of a straight espresso.
On the way to Pacha Chocolates, you pass a few of Puerto López’s practical attractions—two markets (one for fruits and vegetables, the other selling meat), a soccer stadium, and a 24-hour medical center with a wide range of services available to those with IESS (the national health service) membership. Farther north (far enough that it’s best to take a three-wheeler mototaxi for $1) is the impressively modern bus station, where you can catch frequent transport northward to Manta, or south as far as Santa Elena. Departures in either direction leave about every half hour, and the driver will drop you off at any point on the route.
South of Puerto López, the next stop of any significance is the village of Ayampe. Like Puerto López, it’s a town of two halves, but it’s much, much smaller. The Spondylus Highway is the divider between the two parts of the village. Inland, it’s modest housing, smallholdings, and dirt roads.
A small river runs from the interior and also serves as the border between the Manabí and Santa Elena provinces. You wouldn’t guess it from the deep green vegetation of Ayampe, but Santa Elena province is, in general, a drier, less forested section of coastline, tending toward coastal desert as it reaches Salinas in the south.
Hiking up the Rio Ayampe is a relatively popular activity in these parts, although the trail is easy to lose, and to progress more than a couple of miles means getting your feet wet as you take to the riverbed. It’s not deep, but the experience can be somewhat trying if you were simply hoping for a riverside stroll. I didn’t manage to see any monkeys, although they are, apparently, abundant in the valley. As are crayfish—I talked to a couple of local women who were scooping them out of a deeper section of the river with gusto.
What marks Ayampe out from the rest of this coastline is its microclimate. It’s well-watered, with a freshwater lagoon backing the splendid stretch of beach west of the village. A small medical center, modest church, and a mini-supermarket are clustered at the only significant intersection, where a log bench provides a spot to sit in the sun and watch the world pass by.
An abundance of flowers, lawns, and hibiscus.
The vegetation and character of Ayampe is different than other places on the coast. It’s a tropical atmosphere, with an abundance of flowers, lawns, and hibiscus hedgerows flanking the narrow dirt roads which link the various lots and compounds that have grown to cater to the well-heeled surfers, yoga enthusiasts, and ecotourists who make up its primary market.
Like many other towns in the locality, Ayampe’s big draw is the beach. It’s a more exposed stretch than in Puerto López, and deep-water swells hit the sand with abundant energy. Great for surfers, a little intimidating (and dangerous) if you’re not a confident sea-swimmer. It’s a magnificent beach for a walk, though, with rocky outcrops to clamber on at the south end, and hard-packed tan sand for miles. Pelicans wade in the intertidal zone, petrels shriek overhead, and the whole expanse is backed by deep green forest and lagoon vegetation.
It might be a good idea to bring a book, though. Once you’ve walked the beach, and made a circuit of the freshwater lagoon, there’s not really much to occupy you in Ayampe. Los Orishas, alongside the lagoon, is the town’s foremost ex-pat hangout, with bamboo and terracotta décor and a good selection of pasta and pizza options mostly coming in under $10. The Barn Bakery is another welcome addition to ex-pat life, with sumptuous cakes, pastries…and acai bowls for the yoga crowd.
It is easy to understand, though, why Ayampe is popular with high-end travelers. It’s coastal Ecuador without the effort, and walking along its pathways, flanked by bamboo and frangipani hedges, to its beautiful beach with twin offshore islands on the horizon…it’s lovely. Business owners have made great efforts to present the village in an attractive way, with low-impact ecolodge accommodation, brightly painted shopfronts, tropical bamboo décor in the few restaurants, and a well-maintained play-park close to the lagoon.
It is, however, more expensive than surrounding towns. Some consider that a reasonable price to pay for pleasant surroundings. There are some more affordable options for eating out, though. Los Corales on the Calle Laguna is a good budget option for grilled chicken or fish, and the Cabaña de Corviche restaurant on the right of the bridge as you head northward out of town is excellent if you like down-home local cooking for less than $5 for a three-course meal. It’s basic, but good, and if you walk back to town in the dark, the fireflies by the lagoon are an attraction in themselves.
Olón (and Montañita)
If Puerto López is too much like real life, and Ayampe is just a little too quiet for your tastes, Olón is the Goldilocks option that’s just right. It’s no accident that this is the primary ex-pat hub on the coast, even though it’s not the largest of towns. Olón has a little of everything: English-speaking doctors, international cuisine (including excellent Indian cuisine at South Indian on the waterfront, and Mediterranean options at Almacigo on the inland side of town), laundry services, bars, restaurants, fish market, pharmacies, grocery stores, an excellent beach, and a wide range of property for sale or rent.
Olón’s wide, sandy beach stretches for miles.
That’s an extensive list, and Olón really does have almost everything, except…nightlife. There’s a very good reason for that, and it’s called Montañita. Olón’s wide, sandy beach stretches northward in an unbroken strip for some four or five miles, backed by green forest, a river mouth nature reserve, some low-rise residential development, and woodland trails all the way to the clifftop homes of La Rinconada.
Southward, though, the beach stops abruptly at a steep-sided promontory, topped by the modernist architecture of the Santuario de Olón. A twisting little goat trail meanders upward from the beach before meeting the road, which leads to a small chapel and gardens on the clifftop. That road continues south, dropping into Montañita.
The two towns, Olón and Montañita, are complementary opposites. Montañita, the party town, throbs to the sound of dance music and comes to life after dark. It’s a five-minute, one-dollar taxi ride from Olón but completely different in character.
Olón, perhaps because of its proximity to the self-proclaimed party capital of Ecuador, doesn’t attempt to compete with the nightclubs, bars, or cheap hostels of its near neighbor. Instead, it’s a relaxed, practical place, where ex-pats enjoy private pools at their villa or condo building, eat at cheery outdoor terrace restaurants or one of the beachside cabañas, and get on with their business.
“We’re living in a really nice house, right on the ocean,” says Olón ex-pat Pat Perticone. “It’s a three-bedroom house, new build, with a huge living room. It costs $750 a month.” Pat and his wife, Anne, moved to the town in 2019 and settled right in. They found an English-speaking doctor that they’re happy with, their health is improving in the year-round warmth, and they’re making friends with the other ex-pats in town. “I like living here,” says Pat. “I swim a lot, and if you like to party, it’s right by Montañita. I like to party, so I’ve found my spot.”
Bill Stanley and Caroline Belfour, an ex-pat couple who moved to Olón from Dallas, take a similar approach. They live in a 2,800-square-foot duplex that they bought for $240,000, within walking distance of the beach. “In Florida or California,” Caroline points out, “it would have cost us millions.” They’re an energetic couple. Bill teaches local kids to skateboard, Caroline volunteers with an animal charity and helps out at a nearby orphanage.
“We love our life here,” Caroline says, and it’s easy to see the truth of that when you meet her. Both she and Bill exude contentment at the fun life they’re having in Olón.
The coastline is a rugged, robust wonderland.
I can’t argue with them. The strip of coastline between Manta and Salinas is a rugged, robust wonderland. It’s not a sanitized, gated ex-pat experience, by any means. It’s more of an adventure than that, and there’s no virtue in claiming it’s right for everyone. In true South American style, it can be chaotic, scruffy, loud, and sometimes emotionally jarring.
But…as is also typically South American, its positives are just as extreme as its negatives. In this case, those are the abundant wealth of pristine ocean-scapes, vibrant towns and cities, natural wilderness, genuinely friendly locals, affordable living, and a sweet, relaxed, Old World approach to life. And once that gets under your skin, it’s a hard place to leave.