Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador may be the smallest Andean nation but it’s packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery. With its astounding biodiversity, impressive historical legacy, stunning colonial architecture, bustling highland markets and diverse mix of people – blacks, whites, indigenous and mestizo – it’s easy to see why this friendly and exotic destination is regarded as a microcosm of South America. From the icy pinnacles of Chimborazo, to the tropical forests of vast reserves like Parque Nacional Yasuní, to the palm-fringed beaches of the Pacific coast, Ecuador hums with life – all within easy reach of Quito, its jewel of a capital.
We visited Ecuador in January (2016) which is peak surf season, and ‘rainy season’ which shouldn’t put you off as we only experienced a few days of rain. We spent one month travelling from South to North along the Pacific Coast hunting down the best longboard waves Ecuador has to offer, before heading inland to Quito, to catch a flight to Bogota. So if you’re heading to this little gem, check out our ‘Guide to travelling Ecuador’.
Guayaquil, officially Santiago de Guayaquil, is the largest and the most populous city in Ecuador, with around 2.69 million people in the metropolitan area, as well as the nation’s main port. The new José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport, elected as best South American Airport, is located near the new business district center and is next to the International bus station. With daily non-stop flights to New York, Miami, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Amsterdam, Bogotá, Panama City, among many Latin American destinations, Guayaquil is an obvious choice for entry/exit in Ecuador. We flew from London Heathrow, with a short stop in Bogota, onto Guayaquil for just £550.
From a backpacker point of view there isn’t an awful lot to do in Guayaquil so we’d recommend just spending one night there before heading onto the coast. We stayed at Cino Fabiani Guesthouse which was a little on the expensive side at £34 per night but this was a running a theme throughout our trip. Almost all of the accommodation was at least $25 per night, and sometimes this was for a shared bathroom. For a room with air-con expect to pay aroun $40 – $50 per night. There are bargains to be had but to take advantage of these you have to wait until you arrive in the town, and look for a local ‘hospedaje’, and obviously these can be of varying standards.
To get to Montañita, the owner of our guesthouse kindly drove us to the bus station, but taxi’s in Guayaquil are really cheap (be sure to take a yellow taxi and not an unmarked car). Then take the CLP bus to Montañita, which takes 2 – 3 hours and costs $6 per person – you need to find the ticket office and buy a ticket in advance.
Montañita is a small coastal town located about 180 kilometers northwest of Guayaquil. Translated as “little hill”, it became famous very slowly, decades ago, as a place only for surfing, with only a few rustic fishermen houses and one or two surfers tent on summer time. In 1960,was the place where many foreign people linked with the hippie movement became enamoured and decided to settle permanently. A popular destination for surfers from around the world and considered one of the best beaches in Ecuador’s south coast.
After spending the last 18 months in the UK we couldn’t wait to hit Montañita to soak up the sun and enjoy the laid back beach life. And of course, we were looking forward to dusting the cobwebs off our surfboards and heading out into the surf. We’d read a few blog posts explaining the hippie culture and party scene which we knew would suit us down to the ground.
As it was our first destination after leaving the UK, I’d pre-booked 5 nights at Balsa Surf Camp as it had awesome reviews on Booking.com and Trip Advisor. However I have to say we were really disappointed with our stay for a few different reasons – firstly the rooms look beautiful but on a practicle level, the fan was really weak and wasn’t above the bed so at night time we were so uncomfortably hot we couldn’t sleep, and to make matters worse there was a plastic cover over the mattress which was noisy and uncomfortable. Secondly, and most importantly, was the price. We were expecting to pay around $70 per night, but when we arrived we were informed there was an extra 24% in taxes to go on, making it $100 per night. This was a really high price for accommodation in Montañita, for example, the beach front property that sits in front of Balsa (blocking any view of the beach) is called Sole Mare, it’s only $35 per night and looked great, each room has a balcony looking straight at the surf, with a sea breeze, and there’s a nice chill out patio area. The final thing that left a bad taste in our mouths was that we witnessed multiple disputes at the reception desk about people needing to pay for extras, we were even charged $2 to use their phone, after handing over $500 for a 5 night stay! For this kind of money I expect a lot more comfort and good will when it comes to things like a phone call. So if you’re looking for somewhere to stay at the quite end of the beach (North) head to Sole Mare Hostal.
As for the waves, the point is where experienced surfers head to which means it gets really crowded. The rest of the beach is great for beginners to practice in the white wash but for intermediate surfers like ourselves it was actually a tricky place to catch some nice green waves. Perhaps this was due to the time of the year, weather conditions and El Nino. We found the neighbouring beach Olón a better place to practice for our level, you can take a taxi there for a couple of dollars but be sure to bring roof straps with you if you’re transporting your own board.
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to food, there’s all kinds of cuisines, and as vegetarians we had no trouble finding tasty options. Perhaps one of the highlights were the multiple cocktail bars that line the main street and serve up delicious fresh fruit cocktails. We couldn’t get enough of the maracuyá (passion fruit) cocktails, if you choose the right bar (there’s about 30 of them) you can get Flor de Cana Rum which is blended with passion fruit and ice to make a slushy type drink… It’s so good we’re going to take it back to the UK and replicate it on the Pirate’s Grog bar!
When you’ve had enough of partying (and the party scene is pretty good, it’s not what you’d expect i.e. beach shacks blearing reggaeton in bad quality. It’s decent live reggae bands and European-style night clubs with pumping house that go on til dawn) catch the bus 30 minutes up the road to Ayampe to get some R&R and get a glimpse of the real Ecuador.
Ayampe sits on the ‘Route of the Sun’, or ‘Ruta del Sol’, with the Pacific Ocean on the west and rain-forested mountains on the east. Most of the Ecuador beaches on the southern coast are very dry, but Ayampe is in the middle of a micro-climate where the rainforest comes down to the ocean. This gives it a unique climate not found anywhere else on the southern Ecuador beach coast.
We were lucky enough to meet a surfer on the bus from Guayaquil to the coast, as it was his second visit to the area, he was skipping Montañita and heading straight to Ayampe so we were intrigued to check this spot out after our week in Montañita. It’s only a 30 minute ride up the coast and buses fly up the Ruta del Sol at least every half an hour so just hang at the end of the main street in Montañita and you’ll soon be thrown onto a bus.
When we first arrived in Ayampe it felt like we were in a time warp! The unpaved roads are lined with bamboo huts complete with thatched roofs, whilst the locals swing in hammocks on their porches, hiding from the midday sun. The small shop marks the centre of the village with just one road branching out in each direction. There’s a few western run accommodation options. If you’re planning to stay for a while we recommend you check out La Casa (minimum stay is 2 weeks), however if you’re short on time, when you hit the shop, turn right at the crossroads and keep walking until you see Laguna on the left. For $20 a night you get a family room (ours slept 5) with private bathroom, big porch complete with hammock of course, and the best wifi we encountered in all of Ecuador!
If you’re looking for a slower pace of life and to get some real interaction with the locals, Ayampe is the perfect place. But of course most travellers make a point of stopping here for the surf. Ayampe was our favourite surf spot in Ecuador, even though El Nino meant the waves were much bigger than usual, after the back wall had crashed down hard it would lip up again to create a second lush green longboard wave that you could get a decent ride on.
This was our favourite place in Ecuador and after extending our stay by an extra 3 nights, in hindsight, we wished we’d have stayed even longer. Expect to say ‘Hola’ to everyone you pass in the street and spend afternoons sipping on coconuts and relaxing in a hammock.
When we finally managed to pack our bags and wave bye to Ayampe we knew we were heading North but were unsure whether we would stop in the port city, Manta, or whether to keep going to the backpacker town, Canoa. We left at 1pm and after 6 buses we finally arrived in Canoa at 9pm so perhaps a night in Manta would have been useful, but I’m sure we didn’t take the most direct route. Bus drivers will chuck you off at a bus station and point you in the right direction for the next bus. From my understanding you can get a bus straight from Ayampe (or Puetro Lopez) to Manata, unfortunately we ended up going to Jipijapa, then Manta, then Portoviejo, then San Vicente and then Canoa. Of course, you can get a taxi for part or all of this journey too but with surfboards in tow we found the bus to be much easier.
Canoa is a pleasant, laid-back fishing village on the Pacific coast of Ecuador in the Manabi province. Popular with travellers and yet not over-run by them, it’s an excellent place to chill-out for a few days on the beach or practice your surfing skills. As a party town it’s got a less sophisticated atmosphere than Montañita, however by day the miles of white sand and consistent waves make this little ramshackle town a great place to hang out.
As we arrived so late on our first night we went straight to Bambu and got their last available room, which had air-con (which was preset to a really cold temperature so it was far too cold) and cost $40. So the next day we wanted to move to a cheaper room and ended up heading inland by a block or two to Amalur. This great little hostel is run by a friendly couple from Spain. The rooms are $25 per night for a double with private bathroom and fan. They also boast the best restaurant in Canoa according to Trip Advisor and after trying out the Veggie Quinoa Burger we can back this up. The only downside was the wifi connection was really slow, this was frustrating as we had a few rainy days during our stay and wanted to catch up on some work.