It is hard to believe that behind an oil plant such a peaceful, natural and poetic environment could thrive.
Here’s the deal: forget the oil refinery. The route between Piedra Larga and San Mateo is such a wonderful adventure that it will form the highlight of any visit to Manta. South of the city, along the brand new highway that skirts around the refinery, you’ll find some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
The Santa Marianita sign announces your arrival in what has become the ideal R&R spot for people from Manta. The beach provides everything you could need for the perfect day by the sea: surfing, jumping waves, sunbathing and kiosks pitted against the sea breeze offering an array of shrimp and fish dishes, patacones and beer. Restaurant 3 Platos offers excellent pizzas, a great place to grab a bite, especially at or after sunset.
Grocery store signs are always friendly sights, with their outlandishly manabita names one can’t help but smile at
The activity on the beach stands in stark contrast to Santa Marianita village: a quiet fishing community with a tiny church, humble convenience stores, and fishermen homes, where large nets are put away after a day’s work and old, “well-groomed” Land Rovers are used to tow the boats onshore. Colorful murals are a consistent characteristic of this route through Manta’s nearby beaches, and the one you see in this village depicts a boat called Yoli.
The road continues along the beach, but there is also a scenic route that heads inland to the village of Pacoche, where we can recommend the Sumak Kausai hotel (an unpretentious yet eminently comfortable stay in a sumptuous environment). From this point on you enter a portal into the past, escorted by carob and palo santo trees, and the occasional ceiba, where a donkey struts along, carrying grass – his food for the day – and other necessary bundles, next to his owner, a Montuvio invariably wearing a white hat, a nice button-down shirt, and a machete at his side.
You will meet more donkeys and their owners walking in the other direction; afternoon traffic probably returning from a day’s work in the fields. Further along lies the village of Pacoche, with houses made out of bamboo, fruiting mango trees and an occasional showy red-flowered tree called ‘flamboyán’ (notice that the locals call it a Jasmine tree). While it is a sleepy village, with the sun and midday heat causing a general torpor, look out for housewives watching you from windows. If they smile, respond with a greeting. Pacoche is also an extensive protected forest, which makes for one of the most interesting eco tours anywhere along the Ecuadorian coast.
A string of bays form coast of Manabí. This one here: San Lorenzo’s spectacular crescent beach.
Making your way back toward the sea, you’ll find the small sleepy town of Ligüiqui at the top of the hill. It provides panoramic sea views and, following the village path down the hill, a beautiful hidden treasure of a beach. They say locals still use ancient fishing techniques here, spearing fish trapped in caves and at the bases of cliffs as the tide goes out. Back up in Ligüiqui, you’ll be able to make out the hills belonging to the small Aromo nature reserve. Leaving the town, but staying in the hills, keep going until you reach the lighthouse, where you can see San Lorenzo beach, as well as the prominent islet La Monja. They say that the caves under the lighthouse are the home of a mermaid, known for kidnapping handsome men.
The beautiful expanse of San Lorenzo can be a wonderful place to spend some quality time alone. The road leads to the village, another fishing community, before returning to the sea. Among other magical moments you might have along this route, the fishing villages of Piñas and Santa Rosa should not be missed. Their kitchens offer delicious seafood (we found viche soup made with crab) and tongas: whole meals wrapped in green leaves. The road heads inland again, past the village of Pile, known for its tejenderos, weavers who use the same toquilla straw used to make Panama hats.