Parque Nacional Machalilla

National Park in Parque Nacional Machalilla

Preserving isolated beaches, coral formations, two offshore islands, tropical dry forest, coastal cloud forest, archaeological sites and 200 sq km of ocean, Ecuador's only coastal national park is a marvelous and unique destination. Within its nature-rich, strange-looking forest are more than 200 species of birds, including coastal parrots and parakeets, and seabirds such as frigates, pelicans and boobies – some of which nest on the offshore islands. Animals include deer, squirrels, howler monkeys, anteaters and a variety of lizards, snakes and iguanas.

The tropical dry forest seen here used to stretch along much of the Pacific Coast of Central and South America, but it has been whacked nearly into extinction. Plants in the park include cacti, various figs and the giant kapok tree.

The turnoff to the lovely beach of Los Frailes is about 10km north of Puerto López, just before the town of Machalilla. Framed by dramatic headlands, the picturesque beach is one of Ecuador's loveliest. Buses stop near the ranger station, from which a 3km road and a 4km trail lead to the beach. Seabirds are plentiful and camping is allowed.

The barren, sun-charred Isla de la Plata is a highlight of the park, especially from mid-June to September when humpback whales mate offshore and sightings from tour boats are practically guaranteed. The island itself hosts nesting seabird colonies, and a hike is usually included in guided tours.

From the mainland park entrance, 6km north of Puerto López, a dirt road goes 5km to Agua Blanca, a small indigenous village. Admission includes a visit to the small intriguing archaeological museum, followed by a walk through the community to a sulfur pool where you can take a dip and cover yourself with therapeutic mud if so inclined. You can also arrange longer hiking and horse treks, including overnight trips.