Ecuador’s Spondylus Route and the ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos’
Ecuador’s Spondylus Route may not have a name to set a tourism marketing man’s pulse racing, but it’s fast making a big name for itself amongst self drive travellers in the region. Named after a shell which was once used as currency by the local natives, the Spondylus Route runs 850 KM along Ecuador’s Pacific coast from Esmeraldas in the North right down to the Peruvian border.
The route offers travellers a variety of attractions from the history and archaeology of Ecuador’s pre-Colombian cultures, unique opportunities to sample Galapagos-like nature on its many reserves, inland mountains, laidback beach resorts, and unique local cuisine. The route was launched in 2009 as an official tourist route by the Ecuador government so is generally kept well maintained.
If starting in Esmeraldas, the drive from Quito takes about 6 Hours. Esmeraldas is the most Northern of Ecuador’s coastal provinces. It’s green and verdant, with flooded inland forests accessible only by canoe. It also has some nice beaches with good nightlife and restaurants offering an array of local sea food.
Heading South you pass through the beach resort town of Atacames , the small Island town of Muisne, located just off the mainland, and the shrimping town of Pedernales which has some nice beaches to the North.
The next major City South of Esmeraldas is Manta, with a population of nearly 200,000. Manta is Ecuador’s largest sea port and is home to a tuna fishing fleet. There are some good beaches around the City such as El Murciélago, Santa Marianita, San Lorenzo and Barbasquillo, which are popular with surfers. Manta is well known for sea food and has become a popular stopping off spot for cruise liners. Manta also has an interesting museum, the Museo del Banco Central de Manta. This museum has a permanent archaeology exhibit that displays artifacts from the Valdivia, Machalilla, Chorrera, Jama Coaque, Bahía, Guangala and Manteña cultures.
The E15 road cuts inland after San Mateo as it heads to San Lorenzo, but there is also a smaller coastal road affording some nice views,which continue as you pick up the main road again and head down to Puerto Cayo.
Around 10 miles further down the coast is Puerto Lopez, a good base to visit Machalilla National Park , which includes Isla de la Plata, the ‘poor mans Galapagos’. The name is derived from the richness of the Island’s wildlife, with several species of booby, albatross, frigate and humming birds, sealions, dolphins and abundant whales from June to October . The Island is only 4x5KM and visitor numbers are limited to 200 per day, transported by boat on an often choppy sea. The Island is also rumoured to be a hiding place for treasure buried by Sir Francis Drake!
Other attractions in the National Park are Agua Blanca with its archeological museum, and San Sebastien with its orchids and howler monkeys. Also within the park is the Island of Los Frailes, rumoured to be the most beautiful beach in Ecuador.
Around 20 miles South of Puerto Lopez, is the small surfing town of Montanita. This is a laidback, hippy/traveller town with a lively party scene and the feel of a traveller commune.Waves can reach 2 metres between January and March.
Further South you’ll pass another surfing area, Salinas, as you head towards the Gulf of Guayaquil and the city of the same name, which is Ecuador’s largest City. Close to Guayaquil is the Morro Channel and the Jambeli Archpelago . You can reach the Jambeli Archipelago by motor boat from Puerto Bolivar , near Machala, for the northern islands and from Puerto Jambeli and Puerto Pitahaya for the southern islands. The islands have some nice beaches and are a good spot for dolphin watching.
Close to Marchala and just before the Peruvian border is the Arenillas Ecological Reserve which provides great bird watching opportunities. If you want to start your trip in Quito and do a one way rental, then fly back there, the obvious place to aim for in the South is the inland City of Loja , which is served by Camilo Ponce Enriquez airport in Catamayo, 30 km (30 min) distant. From there, it is possible to fly to Quito or Guayaquil with Tame and SAEREO airlines.
The Spondylus Route can be enjoyed for most of the year .January to May is the hot and rainy season while the rest of the year is more dry and cool. June to September is the humpback whale breeding period though it will be busy at this time. September tends to be quieter, with less crowds and milder weather.
For more info on driving in Ecuador and Car Rental options see my Ecuador page