Set along the central coast of Ecuador, Puerto Lopez in Manabi is that laid-back fishing town that evokes memories of tropical warmth, fresh succulent seafood, and simple living.
While tourism is well-developed in many parts of this popular Latin American country, Puerto Lopez retains that small town charm where fishermen and chefs labour harmoniously on the beach while children play on dirt paths behind the main tourist belt. More than just a gateway to the Poor Man’s Galapagos, there are actually more things to do in Puerto Lopez! Her proximity to the Machalilla National Park gives easy access to Agua Blanca - an indigenous community - and some of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador.
The ‘village’ can be defined with three main paths; a well-built road by the coast, a dirt path in the middle where local houses and hotels lie, and a third dusty but wider road that leads to the bus terminal and other cities/towns. But before you write it off as a touch-and-go destination, read on!
Fishing as a livelihood
Fishing is one of the main industries in Puerto Lopez, and to truly appreciate a place, one must get to the heart of the destination. In the case of Puerto Lopez, that would be the morning fish market, which sadly seems to be grossly underrated.
Located near to the port at the southern end of the coast, the morning fish market starts around 6 am where fishermen start returning with their fresh catch of the day. There’s a constant buzz in the air, created not only by humans but excited seabirds circling above the beach and eyeing opportunities for feeding.
Hauls of seafood in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours can be seen, and a stone’s throw away, the chefs cook under shelter to serve you the freshest seafood breakfast you’d ever have in an open-air beach kitchen.
Besides purchasing fresh seafood for a delicious meal (try ceviche!), the lively atmosphere on the beach is an eye-opener. Take some photos or interact with the friendly locals. There are some mobile food vendors if you’d like a snack.
Note: Dress casual and in waterproof shoes or flip-flops, and stay alert, as things can get messy. It’s all worth it, though.
Silver Island (Isla de La Plata): Gateway to Poor Man’s Galapagos
The strategically-located Puerto Lopez is the gateway to the Poor Man’s Galapagos - more commonly known as Isla de La Plata aka Silver Island. More easily accessible and affordable as compared to the Galapagos, there’s a reason why the Silver Island is attractive, not only to backpackers. Nature is … well, nature, and you can find plenty on Silver Island such as the adorable blue-footed boobies, magnificent albatrosses and frigate birds. Learn about these interesting (but unfortunately endangered) seabirds and their quirky behaviours! Depending on the season that you visit, whale sighting near the island can be one of the highlights of your trip.
In addition to marine animals, nature has much to share, be it physically or intellectually. The Palo Santo (meaning Holy Tree in Spanish) is a well-loved tree in South America, coveted for its mystical and medicinal benefits. Smelling like incense, the bark of Palo Santo can be used to keep mosquitos at bay! Should you wish to get some as souvenirs, there are shops at Puerto Lopez that sell palo santo products in nice packaging.
For sea lovers, keep a lookout for giant turtles and colourful fishes as you swim in the Pacific. A standard day tour to Silver Island includes a guided tour, snorkelling, ferry transport, light lunch, etc.
Note: There are proper hiking paths on Silver Island, but the steep slopes and tropical climate may take a toll. Dress light, bring sun protection and drink more water.
Playa Los Frailes: One of Ecuador’s most beautiful beaches
Located within the Machalilla National Park and a short driving distance from Agua Blanca, Playa Los Frailes is reputedly one of Ecuador’s most beautiful beaches. While this author cannot ascertain if it’s a fact, Los Frailes is possibly one of the cleanest and least crowded fine sand beaches I have ever visited!
This beach is pretty exclusive, in the sense that it is located within the national park and personal particulars are recorded before entering the gated compound. But, yes, it is FREE to access! Imagine soft, white sand across a crescent shaped beach, overlooking the jewel-blue glittering sea. The sky and sea seemingly merge in shades of blue!
Besides lazing your day at this beautiful beach (which is quite bare), you can do some hiking around the area and there’s a lookout point for frigate birds.
Note: It is best to bring your own food, drinks and picnic mats, etc. There are bathroom and shower facilities near the entrance of the beach, and only two small artisan stalls and a vendor that sells drinks (no beer) and ice cream. Portable sun shades are available for rental.
Agua Blanca: More than just a village!
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Museum and archaeological site
Upon setting foot in Puerto Lopez, you’d undoubtedly hear about Agua Blanca, and wonder if it is worth your time to visit. Well, think no further. Please visit. The self-reliant Agua Blanca (meaning White Water in Spanish) is a local settlement based within the Machalilla National Park that depends largely on community-based tourism.
Learn about life in Agua Blanca that traces back to the Manteño civilisation (Los Monteños) - last pre-Columbian civilisation in modern-day Ecuador - through archaeological finds! Research has shown that this region was densely populated between the years 800 and 1532 AD.
Comprising a museum, church and archaeological site, a guided tour (included in entrance fee) generally takes about two to three hours where one can learn about pre-Hispanic cultures, archaeological finds, as well as life in the village in current times. Should you have time and the interest, you can also partake in an ongoing excavation project under the guidance of an archaeologist. As Agua Blanca is located in the national park, this means there are plenty of nature trails and some hiking opportunities.
Agua Blanca Sulphur Lagoon: Natural mineral spa bath
At Agua Blanca, one also has access to ‘nature’s beauty mineral’ in the sulphur pool, akin to a natural mineral spa bath! This tranquil environment reminds one of an outdoor onsen (Japan’s famed hot spring pools) with its rustic wood structure surrounded by greenery. One will also given a small container of mud (retrieved from the bottom of the lagoon) to apply over your face and body.
According to our guide, this is a sacred pool for the community, and it has health and beautifying benefits.
Under the blistering heat of Ecuador, you might be relieved to know that the water is tepid and very refreshing to soak in, albeit its murky and not-so-appealing appearance! But you know what they say: never judge a book by its cover. Besides, have you ever had a mineral spa bath that costs only 5 USD including a free tour?
The sulphur pool is located in a cosy clearing that include toilets and changing facilities. There are outdoor shower facilities for one to rinse before and after soaking in the pool. Massage services, and food and beverages are available too.
Address: Agua Blanca is located in the province of Manabi. Canton: Puerto López Parish: Machalilla. 12km north of Puerto López, approximately 5km away from the main road Jipijapa - Puerto López.
Price: 5 USD
Opening Hours: 8am - 6pm. Closed on public holidays.
Duration: around 2 - 3 hours required.
Website: Agua Blanca
Puerto Lopez: That less-trodden destination in Ecuador
It may sound clichéd but Puerto Lopez, like many other less-trodden destinations, is a gem with natural treasures and extensive history. With the steady tourism development, it may soon become another Montañita (nearby party town) unless well-considered sustainability measures are put in place.
Come visit. Appreciate the nature, simple life and beauty in Puerto Lopez, but take away nothing except good memories.
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