This string of small islands in the middle of the Caribbean is famous for idyllic landscapes and...
Manabí: Seaside Serenity
It is six in the afternoon, and the blue of a circular skylight brings to mind a boat’s porthole. The building’s windows open to the roar of the sea, and the exposed beams and wooden floorboards make me feel like I’m sailing. I can imagine myself at the helm of a schooner, but I’m actually in the room where I ate breakfast the first day of my trip to the northern coast of Ecuador’s Manabí Province. Punta Prieta Guest House is built on an outcropping of dark rock buried in the tide line. At high tide, when waves break on both sides of the cliff, you feel like you’re on a voyage with the sails unfurled and the wind at your back.
I began my journey around 11 in the morning, traveling northeast from Quito towards Pedernales, a coastal city some 168 miles away. Pedernales is a good base of operations; it doesn’t have a fantasy beach, but there are banks, photo shops and other key businesses. I still had a ways to go, so I headed south 27 miles on the Ruta del Sol to Punta Prieta. I first visited this part of Ecuador’s coast a few years ago, and I am still impressed. I actually found it by accident: I turned right to go to the town of Tasaste (19 miles from Pedernales) and found a quiet little beach inhabited by a family of fishermen. Tasaste’s beaches boast attractive rock formations that are the result of millennia of erosion. The locals call one of these natural sculptures the “Love Arch,” even though it looks more like a giant worm.
This area is an excellent choice for adventurous spirits who eschew wide coastal avenues lined with stylish shops and crowded seaside bars. The unique Punta Prieta Guest House was opened in 1999 by Alonso Ordóñez who had decided to leave his city life for “a mountain by the sea.” He chose the point where the coastal chain breaks into crags at the ocean’s edge, creating a natural shelter and impressive scenery next to the coves. The subtle changes in climate are thanks to protected air from the continent meeting the fresh Pacific breeze.
A 62 year-old Quito native who explored every inch of Ecuador as a tour guide before reaching Punta Prieta, Ordóñez did not plan to build a hostel for travelers. The idea came to him when he found the perfect place and knew he would never return to the capital. Only then did he begin to think about how he would try to earn a living. Ordóñez’s concern for his visitors´ privacy inspired his ingenious use of the space on the outcropping of rocks. A grouping of cabins with all of the comforts of a city hotel, Punta Prieta Guest House has a maximum capacity of 25 guests. The Sun Suite is the best choice: it boasts a mini-bar, a balcony with deck chairs, a king-sized bed and an unbeatable view of the North and South beaches, all of which ensure tranquility and rest.
After a succulent breakfast, I head south across the sand to Don Juan beach. If you don’t have time to go on foot, you can make the same trip by car in five minutes. I prefer to walk, stopping to admire the cemetery of headstones whose names and dates have been erased by the salt air. Hidden among the trees, it seems like a ghost town for ghosts. You can sit here, beneath the palm trees, and wait to become inspired to cross the wide beach and dive into the ocean. Don Juan is a picturesque little village, but you won’t have a hard time finding a cold beer to help you work up the energy to head back to your hotel. A more rustic but no less cozy guesthouse called Latitud 7 sits to the north. It is run by Frenchman Jean Marie who is a good conversationalist and a great chef; he doesn’t skimp on cold apéritifs if he thinks the traveler sitting in front of him might have a story to tell.
The next day, I return to the Ruta del Sol, which connects the extreme northern part of the province to the towns and cities on the southern coast. A few minutes from Don Juan, you’ll find Jama, where archaeologists have unearthed pre-Incan archaeological pieces. Further on, small cities like Canoa and Crucita offer interesting options for dining, lodging and sports. I drive my car onto the ferry at San Vicente and pay three dollars to cross the Chone River to Bahía de Caráquez, the route’s first big city and a more traditional tourist enclave that has undergone interesting urban development. Its jetty is home to restaurants, tree-dotted parterres and elegant buildings that momentarily break the spell of the solitary world that I’ve just left behind. There is a different vibe here and a variety of entertainment options. If you are really laid back, stay at the Hotel La Piedra and order a drink and a sandwich while you sunbathe by the pool.
I return to my car to cross a forest of flowering ceibos and contemplate the intense green of the rice paddies from the highway’s median. I then head to Manta, 52 miles from Bahía de Caráquez, one of the most important coastal cities. It has a solid tuna fish industry and a deep-water port where the cruise ships that head south of the Pacific tend to stop. If you are looking to balance the experience of staying at an outlying guesthouse with the lights of the city, Manta is the place for you. After spending the morning on Playa Murciélago (careful of the undertow), the bars, movie theaters, malls and Central Bank Museum – with its exhibit of ceramic pieces from the first human groups to settle in Ecuador – offer a dose of urban bustle.
Manta is home to two luxury hotels: Hotel Oro Verde and the Howard Johnson. The second opened just three years ago and offers first-class service. Guests may choose between a room with a view of the city and its new buildings or one that offers an ocean sunset. Amenities include laundry services, a gym, a seaside pool, tennis courts, a sushi bar and – for those who are feeling lucky – the Casino de Mar. If you are traveling on business, the Howard Johnson offers conference rooms, free Internet services for guests and other amenities.
That afternoon, I explore the city’s jetty, whose restaurants offer a selection of shellfish prepared in an unbelievable variety of ways, a tribute to the fishermen who call the port home. I catch a movie on the way back to my room, enjoying the fact that I don’t have to worry about the return itinerary. I have had the opportunity to stop at a little-known beach and for the moment that sounds much better than a city perched high in the Andes.
Where to Stay
Punta Prieta Guest House: Comfortable, cozy and built on a crag that offers an unbeatable view of the North and South beaches.
Prices: suites, US$60; double room, US$40.
Carretera Pedernales-Jama, km 36
Tel. 593-2-286-2986 / 593-9-342-3811
Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel: This new five-star hotel is located at the water’s edge.
Prices: from US$95
Kilómetro 1,5 Vial Barbasquillo, Manta
Hotel Oro Verde: Another five-star hotel with excellent services.
Prices: habitación single, US$100; double, US$110.
Malecón & calle 23, Manta
Hotel La Piedra: All the comforts of a four-star hotel next to the jetty in Bahía de Caráquez.
Prices: habitación single, US$67; double, US$79.
Traffic circle, near calle Bolívar, Bahía de Caráquez
Rates do not include 22% tax.
Where to Eat
Latitud 7: The guesthouse and restaurant near Punta Prieta Guest House are managed by French-born Jean Marie, who combines the culinary cultures of both continents.
Carretera Pedernales-Jama, km 42
Club Ejecutivo: The city’s most elegant restaurant is perched on the top floor of one of its highest buildings. The fare is international, though the cebiche, sea bass and shellfish are not to be missed.
Avenida 2 & Calle 12, piso 11, Banco del Pichincha, Manta
Muelle Uno: Malecón Santos, along the mooring where you can catch the ferry to San Vicente.
What to See
Punta Prieta: The perfect beach for watching groups of pelicans and taking long walks.
Carretera Pedernales-Jama, km 42
Don Juan: A long, wide, solitary beach with calm waters and a group of palm trees that serve as the perfect venue for a nap after a swim.
Carretera Pedernales-Jama, km 47
Museo del Banco Central: The collection is small, but the pre-Incan archaeological pieces are a window on the daily life of Ecuador’s oldest cultures.
Malecón de Manta
Open: Tuesday to Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Playa Murciélago: This popular beach in Manta offers a variety of seafood restaurants and bars.
Sophisticated hotels, luxury dining and a sense of peace lets you enjoy the beautiful scenery of...