Punta Galera is Esmeraldas’ northwestern corner, with some of the country’s most striking beach environments; languid seaside villages; a peculiar conception of time; brackish waters wrapped in lush vegetation; waterfalls; forests; artisanal fishermen of sea and mangrove; and a curious hole that makes fire.
The Estero de Plátano river delta. Photo: Jorge Vinueza.
Quito had to wait centuries before having its own beach. Decent roads to reach the shores closest to the capital, in the province of Esmeraldas, did not exist until the oil boom during the 1970s. Quiteños had been forever forced to take their vacations in Salinas, in today’s province of Santa Elena: over 9 hours’ away by car.
With the arrival of paved roads to Esmeraldas, the trip to the beach from Quito was reduced by three hours (and more now since the flat stretches hold eight lanes). The first Quiteños to arrive and see these long-lost Pacific-Ocean beaches for themselves soon realized their potential. Small fishing villages with silent inlets lined with palm trees were ideal to fill with constructions offering “beautiful sea views”.
Tonsupa and Atacames, the beaches located immediately to the west of the provincial capital Esmeraldas, were chosen for the venture, and they look nothing like they did…
Atacames receives the most tourists. Thus, it has a health center, and a pretty park with trees (you can find decent pizza or pasta at the new La Brasa de Michelle), and enough bathing suit options to catch your fancy. Or you can take the bypass before town (at the Virgin roundabout), and head out to Same, Tonchigüe and the fabulous Punta Galera route.
In Same, you find one of Quito’s prime beach resorts: Casablanca. Here, we recommend Green 9, a comfortable stay and good base to explore the area, with its quaint Tiki House for pizzas and seafood. The beach is expansive, with beautiful lilac sunsets, where we were blessed with the opportunity of bathing with dolphins! Before reaching Casablanca, find Simón Pizza, a good option on the road, and just past the town of Same, El Acantilado, where you can eat or stay, at their more rustic cabins with panoramic views of the sea. A few meters away, you can also dine at excellent El Rampiral restaurant/hotel, for more elaborate dishes. Everything that lies west of here takes us back in time to a world before the beach-resort utopia that proliferated throughout the area, and is therefore a route truly worth exploring.
The Punta Galera Loop
Tonchigüe, the first town west of Same, is a good place to get gas for your car (have cash ready); the town’s stores are handy for stocking up on a last snack before traveling or beach toys for the children… Tonchigüe’s beach is a fishermen’s enclave, and witnessing their dawn arrival is a poetic vision that has long been an attraction for early birds. Not to be missed are the delicious bolones de camarón (plantain patties made with shrimp). The first right that follows Tonchigüe cannot go unnoticed, a huge sign that announces the entrance to the self-proclaimed “tourist route” of Galera-San Francisco. This actually turns out to be one of the province’s most beautiful scenic routes, bordering what in 2008 became a full-fledged Marine Reserve.
Our first stop is Playa Escondida. You will see the wooden sign indicating the entrance passing a large brick wall on your right. The large wooden gate is usually open from 8 am to 6 pm (there is a $5 fee per adult).
It is actually an “eco hotel” (rainwater is collected and bathrooms are holes into which you throw sawdust); there is also a restaurant serving typical food and breakfasts. You can camp for $5 or stay at one of the windowless rooms, which seem to be an extension of the seaside cliffs. In early morning and evening, the beach comes alive with herons hunting, thousands of crabs scuttling by, sandpipers rushing the waves and pelicans creating shapes in the sky… Walking during low tide takes you to caves, tunnels and sculptural rock formations produced by the area’s geology.
One kilometer from here, Cumilinche offers more traditional lodging, and is worth discovering perhaps for its beautiful palm tree grove alone, under which you can take advantage of its private cove.
Towns, waterfalls, rivers and beaches…
Caimito’s trails to the beach. Photo: Jorge Vinueza.
Galera, located at the very tip of the Ecuadorian map, is the route’s first town. Its dramatic forested cliffs and long stretch of beach, where a smattering of fishing boats rest, is perhaps a clear sign of the world into which you are about to cross into as you “turn the corner” south towards a row of fishing villages, each with its own identity: Galerita, Estero del Plátano, Quingue, Cabo San Francisco… They all tell a similar story. Their inhabitants live from fishing, and a constant search for sustainability.
2016’s earthquake affected a nascent commitment to tourism that had grown over recent years across the entire region.
From a dirt road at the town of Galerita, for example, you can take a walk inland (which takes several hours to complete) revealing an astonishing counterpoint to life along the shore. The tourist attraction here, apart from a beautiful waterfall hidden behind a forest wall, is a hole that emits natural gas. You could feasibly light a flame with a match in the middle of the jungle and cook everything from a marshmallow to a shish kebab.
But perhaps the town that has focused most on strengthening sustainable tourism is Estero del Plátano. The view as you reach this bay is stunning, with its two streets that inevitably takes yo to its extensive beach. It seems that children here have no concerns in life: they dip into the ocean whenever they please… they spend the afternoon taking long walks along the fabulous rocky esplanade that forms small natural pools at low tide. Or you’ll find them lazily sitting on the sidewalks of the village, cracking open freshly picked zapote, a delicious tropical fruit, or the unique “ovo”, which they offer to those who walk by. Don’t miss the local restaurant Mar y Bosque, from where you can organize your visits to the nearby natural attractions and ask for sea prawns al ajillo(a garlic sauce cooked with coconut milk) if they have it!
Quingue is the town that follows, home to a beautiful (and long) shoreline. It is fascinating. Low tide reveals another set of interesting rock formations as you set out to explore, with a small brackish lake/river and caves, hidden away when the waves approach.
Caimito’s beach forms just south of Quingue. There is now a dirt road which you can take by car to it, but it is a strong slope that weak cars may have trouble climbing back up as it descends steeply from the coastal mountain range to sea level in less than a kilometer. This secret cove was only accessible by way of a forest path that begins at its community center (that offers lodging and food), which remains the most special way to get to it.
The Galera route winds its way inland, crossing the Tóngora River (at the town of Tongorachi). You can visit forest trails here to a secluded beach at one of the private haciendas. Then comes Cabo San Francisco, the largest village yet, with its fabulous delta that takes you down a beautiful river (you can ask in town for a boatride). Its beach and cliffs sparkle beneath the bright sun.
Halfway between Cabo San Francisco and Muisne, you arrive at Bunche, another beach that for years had been abandoned, but whose villagers recently began to enliven, earning a name for itself for its culinary delights. A claim to fame is the conch tamale(tamal de concha). The sea here is a defining feature, as it can change the entire contours of the beach in a matter of years, from a rocky coast to a series of sandbanks that create a veritable swimming pool.
The road ends a little further south, as you reach the fork that takes you to Muisne, or back to the main highway. Muisne, tragically hit by the earthquake, offers boat rides to Isla Bonita, which is quite popular, although we prefer the northern neighborhood of Bellavista, which offers tours to the nearby “pocitas” (little pools) and mangroves.
Back on the highway, you can continue to Mompiche, or return back north. And as you do, just think of how similar to this coast the “beaches of Quito” must have looked like before anyone discovered them in the name of tourism!
You can actually spot breaching Humpback Whales from the highlands of Caimito and Quingue. If you want to see them up close, however, the only way to do so is to head out into the open ocean and approach them. From Súa, you can combine this visit with Cueva del Amor (Love Cave) and Isla de los Pájaros (Bird Island, where Blue-footed boobies may be resting on the rocks). Make sure the tide is low so you can land.
The whales visit our coasts between July and August.