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Machalilla National Park and Vicinity
by Julian Smith

May/Mayo 1998

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Ecuador's flagship coastal park protects most of the country's tropical scrub desert and forest. This hot, arid plant zone once covered an estimated 25% of western Ecuador, but today only about one percent is left - most of it here.

Flora and Fauna
Much of the tough-looking vegetation, including opuntia cactus and palo santo trees, will be familiar to anyone who's been to the Galapagos. The fat-trunked ceiba or kapok trees, whose bare branches look like upturned roots, produce a fine, downy fiber used in World War II life preservers. The algaroba tree can photosynthesize through its green bark even in the absence of leaves. Parakeets, armadillos, and two species of monkeys range from the lower elevations into the higher hills covered with deciduous and evergreen forests.

Isla de la Plata
Machalilla's offshore appendix was named for an alleged hoard of silver ingots left by Sir Francis Drake, who stopped here at the end of the 16th century after attacking a Spanish galleon. Today park rangers and a huge assortment of bird species make their home on the eight-square-mile island, 24 km out to sea west of Puerto Cayo.

The Isla de la Plata has been called the "poor man's Galapagos" since its count of frigate birds, albatrosses, and all three boobie species actually exceeds that of the famous archipelago. Swimming and snorkeling in Drake's Bay will bring you close to (if not face to face with) sea lions and sea turtles, along with the only coral areas off mainland Ecuador. Eleven species of whales pass by June-October.

Traces of cultures up to 3,000 years old have been unearthed in the valley of the Rio Buenavista. Agua Blanca, in the northern section of the park, is one of the richest archaeological sites in the country. About 200 stone sculptures show that the area, formerly called Salangome, served as the center of a trading network that sailed as far north as Mexico.

Many of the digs, including others at Los Frailes and San Sebastian, have been filled in to protect their contents from looters and the weather, but most of the artifacts have been moved to the museum in Salango.

Visiting the Park
After checking in at the administrative center in Puerto Lopez, head north six to seven km to the dirt track leading east through the village of Agua Blanca. Tracks lead into the hills to other villages such as Las Peñas and San Sebastian, where accommodations can sometimes be arranged with local families. If you go by foot (as opposed to vehicle or rented animal) make sure to take enough water, especially for trips into the drier coastal scrub.

Machalilla extends three km seaward beyond beautiful beaches such as Los Frailes, near the town of Machalilla. Check in at the administrative center in Puerto Lopez to enter the park and to visit the Isla de la Plata. Day-trips to the island typically cost US$20 pp, including a guide, snorkel equipment, and a snack. Bring water, protection from the sun, and your own snorkeling equipment if you have it. Mantaraya Diving in the town of Machalilla offers PADI certification courses and trips offshore; inquire at Advantage Travel in Quito, La Tierra 392 and Los Shyris, tel. 2-462-871 or 2-447-190, fax 2-487-645.

Hotel Atamari
This luxury hotel was built on a hilltop overlooking the ocean in 1994, two km south of Ayampe. Ten rooms and self-contained cabins (US$84 d) enjoy a vide view of the Ocean and Ayampe Bay, as does the acclaimed restaurant. Reservations are a good idea on weekends, tel. 2-228-470, fax 2-508-369.

South of Atamari the coastal road winds through low green hills while keeping the ocean always in sight. As it returns to the shore, elaborate vacation houses have staked out sections of beach. Fishing nets wound on poles lean against poor houses in between.

Montañita and Vicinity

The small fishing town of Montañita owes its increasing popularity as a seaside hangout to the ocean, which beckons surfers - and surf-lifestylers - with the longest right break in Ecuador. Everyone here, it seems, has tan skin and long hair and is either carrying a board or gazing longingly at someone else's. Inexpensive hotels and bars on the beach keep budget travelers happy, and the tranquility is only broken during Carnival, when thousands of tourists descend for the Pan-American surf contest and bikini competition.

The main break skirts the rocks at the north end of the beach. High tides during February and May bring the best waves, but swells of 10 meters can come in June and July. Rip tides, jagged rocks, and occasional stingrays merit a watchful eye.

Farther south, fine beaches grace Olon and Manglaralto, north and south of Montañita, respectively. Both towns offer limited accommodations and food options. Surfers should keep going south to Punta Brava, where a consistent left breaks near an Air Force base (get permission to enter beforehand).

Near the Break
At the entrance to the dirt lane near the break are the Cabañas Vito, as much the sprawling house of a surfer and his family as a hotel. Surfboards and childrens' toys litter the yard, and there's pool tables inside and a bar on the beach. Surfboards cost US$5 to rent for the day (US$4 for a half day), and ragged boogie boards are free to guests. Cell-like rooms and raised cabins cost US$4 pp, but for even less you can pitch a tent here or next door at Camping Los Delfines.

Tres Palmas Cabañas, down the lane on the left, offers six rooms facing the ocean for US$22 per room with private bath and fan. Out front is a Tex-Mex cantina on the beach. Across the lane the balconies of the clean and pleasant Hostal La Casa del Sol are covered with hammocks and drying laundry. Rooms sharing a bathroom are US$5, US$8 private, and a four-person room with hot water runs US$12. The family-run Las Olas Restaurant next door serves big, cheap portions. Farther down the lane you'll hit the near-legendary Rincon del Amigo. Breakfast served at noon, a well-worn bar decorated with whale vertebrae, and pool and foosball tables make this an easy place to lose track of time. Rooms sharing a bathroom are US$3 pp, which is also how much the heaping plates in the restaurant cost, when they finally appear. Opposite the Rincon del Amigo sits Baja Montañita, tel. 5-901-218/219, fax 5-901-228, like a successful executive opposite its ragged but happy little brother. Six-person cabins and rooms cost US$48-62, with deluxe models going for US$112-132. A pool and restaurant face the rocky break. Take a right just before the Rincon del Amigo to reach the Hostal Pelikano, where comfortable rooms with lofts are a deal at US$5 with shared bath, US$8 private. The hotel's pizzeria can toss you up a tropical with ham and pineapple for US$3.50 and serves breakfast from 8:30 a.m.

In Town
A kilometer of wide, empty beach separates the break from Montañita proper. Here the three-story Centro del Mundo, so close to the beach you can practically fish from the balconies, offers dorm rooms for US$3 pp. A German-Bolivian couple runs La Casa Blanca a block back from the sand. The pleasantly simple hostal has a cafeteria and dorm rooms for US$5 pp, private accommodations US$16.25 d.

Other budget surfer hotels can be found on the same street, including El Surfista and the Cabañas Tsunami, which doubles as a surf shop and runs a 4WD service to hidden beaches for US$4 pp. The Restaurant Doña Elenita, on the main drag, garners repeat business for its exotic empanadas (banana and chocolate is a favorite). Son de Montañita is more expensive, and Blancas has great ceviche. Stop by the Bar Su Ca Pi Ra on the corner for a US75-cent capiriña (a Brazilian drink made with cane alcohol, lemon juice, and sugar), a US$1 caipiroshka (the same, with vodka), or a grilled sandwich.

The Montañita Surf Shop opposite Su Ca Pi Ra handles repairs and rental, and a Festival de Arte happens 31 Jan.-2 February.

Alandaluz Ecological Tourist Center

The most commonly heard complaint about Ecuador's coast is the lack of middle ground between grungy beach cabins and gleaming, expensive, polluting resort hotels. The Alandaluz Ecological Tourist Center fills the niche almost single-handedly, offering a beautiful and comfortable setting that you don't have to feel guilty about or go broke to afford.

Everything about this luxurious tree-house resort is designed to be as healthy, ecologically sound, and self-sustaining as possible. The thatched roofs are set at a 70 degree angle conducive to "inspiration, concentration, and clarity," and the cane and wood used in the traditional construction were cut during the new moon when the sap level is lowest, making the material more durable and less attractive to insects.

Organic gardens, composting toilets, and a full recycling program minimize impact on the fragile coastal environment. The owners have even begun recycling programs in the village of Puerto Rico next door; every morning a man leads a horse-drawn cart to collect the hotel's 2011
Visions and cans.

Neon tropical flowers surround the sturdy bamboo, stone, and plaster cabins scattered in the bushes around the large main building. Only the infrequent car passing down the coastal road breaks the spell cast by the roar of the ocean, the occasional critter skittering off into the bushes, and the nocturnal hum of insects.

Once you've sampled the all-natural meals in the restaurant - try the corvina (sea bass) in peanut sauce or the pancakes with mora (blackberry) syrup - it's time for some serious lounging on the private beach, from which you can occasionally spot whales and dolphins on the horizon. Just watch out for the undertow and the surfers taking advantage of the one to two meter waves.

If you're looking for a little more activity, Machalilla is only a short bus ride to the north, and the hotel's Pacarina Tour Agency organizes snorkeling excursions and overnight trips to experience daily life on a small coastal farm.

Small private cabins with porch and hammock cost US$12 s, US$18 d if you'll share a shower or US$15-22 s, US$22-32 d if you want your own. To camp or hang a hammock costs US$3.50. The Cabaña del Arbol honeymoon suite, built into a living tree, is great for special occasions. Any bus down the coastal road can drop you off at the entrance, just north of Ayampe. For more information contact the Alandaluz Ecological Tourist Center.

Recommended Reading Excerpted from Ecuador Handbook by Julian Smith, Moon Travel Handbooks, 1998.


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