Love brought me to Ecuador. While some say all you need is love, Ecuador says all you need is Ecuador (literally, it’s the new tourism slogan) and if you want something a bit more no strings attached, I’ve got to say Ecuador has a pretty good argument.
With a total area of 109,484 sq miles, roughly the same size as the state of Colorado, Ecuador is a pretty small country. But with its quaint coast line, a section of the Andes complete with some of the most impressive volcanoes in South America, Amazonian jungle and of course, the Galapagos Islands, although none of these are any more than ten hours apart by public bus, it feels pretty big.
From December 2014, I spent six months living in Ecuador with my boyfriend who grew up in Manta, a coastal city and the world’s largest exporter of Tuna. Manta hosts Ecuador’s largest seaport and is a central city in the Ecuadorian coastal province of Manabi.
Historically, Manabi is unique. Since being here the second time around, I’ve learnt about the particular histories and rivalries that existed and continue to exist between provinces within Ecuador, despite being such a tiny country. Manabas, or people from Manabi, have a distinct identity and ancestry from those in the highlands. Impressively, it is an ancestry that dates back to almost 4500 years before the rise of the Incan empire, to the Valdivian tribe. Despite their short stature and cholo (fisherman) origins, the then Manteño people managed to resist domination by the Incas and therefore maintain their pre-Incan cultural heritage, unlike the pre-Incan cultures in the Andes that were conquered and ultimately assimilated into the much broader Incan empire.
Later, after the Spanish were ousted, it was much easier for the Manabas to reclaim their traditional identities. The highlands on the other land, having suffered a series of cultural mutations, have had their traditional identities obscured. Only today is there a significant impetus to start recovering these other pre-Incan histories.
And these rivalries persist today. Sierras, or people in the highlands, perceive the costeños (coastal people) as lazy, party-happy layabouts, dubbing them monos (monkeys). Costeños on the other hand consider the Sierras to be uptight, conservative, workaholics. Guayas, or people from the affluent neighboring province of Guayaquil, are said to look down on Manabas as uneducated and poor. Essentially, Manabi has a long history of defending its culture and character. Perhaps that is why, from what I’ve seen, Manabas today are fiercely proud of their identity and their province.
They have good reason. Manabi is a striking and diverse province, offering up what I think is one of the most beautiful sections of Ecuadorian coastline. The undulating landscape alternates between arid land with dry forest and much greener, humid areas of tropical jungle. Rising up behind the beaches, you have the foothills of El Campo, the predominant agricultural region in Ecuador. Between Manta and Ayampe, the last small town in Manabi before you hit the more touristy and party-centred Montañita in Santa Elena, the coastline is sprinkled with fishing towns of various sizes, the most prominent of which is Puerto Lopez.
And to me, this is the true charm of Manabi: the old fishing villages that have largely maintained their traditional way of life - a feat in modern times. It is therefore slightly sad to read some of the tourist remarks about how they didn’t like Puerto Lopez because it was a bit grubby/shabby. Well, being a fisherman isn’t glamorous. If you want seaside glamour, go to Miami.
If you are here however, make the most of it, and go visit the lively, early morning fish markets in Puerto Lopez or Machililla. See the colorful fishing boats coming back after being at sea all night. Watch as the hawkers flock to buy the Dorado, Corbina and Albacora off the boats, still being pulled to shore, before they transfer it to a market table just a few meters away on the beach to be gutted and displayed for sale. It’s a smelly, noisy spectacle and it’s great fun. And that’s how it’s been for centuries: it is the heartbeat of the coast and coastal communities. Plus, with our food economy the way it is these days, there’s nothing more satisfying than buying a fresh Dorado at $2 a pound, straight out the net of a local fisherman. No qualms about where or how your fish has been sourced. No trawling. No freezing.
Yes, the lifestyle is simple and the towns are humble, but the beaches are beautiful and if you can look past the initial ‘shabbiness’, the towns most certainly have a quaint charm of their own. Tourism has been gaining rapid ground in the past ten years however and the infrastructure has bloomed with it. Puerto Lopez is getting a facelift, clearing out the beach shacks and building a brand new malecón, or boulevard, along the beachfront. New activities, trails, and accommodation are constantly being developed and of course, land sold. Even so, there is still a lot of untapped potential in this beautiful region. It will be interesting to see how things change over the next five years, but hopefully, not at the cost of a traditional way of life.
the food and diabetes bit
If you like fish, consider it heaven. You can also get grilled meat for lunch or dinner, but fresh caught fish, and lots of it, is what you’ll find most gastronomically and economically gratifying here in Manabi.
This is also a great place for those who don’t do gluten. Unless you actually go to a bakery to buy wheat bread, you will hardly ever encounter anything on your plate that has gluten in it. Even the traditional bread here is made from maize or yuca.
ceviche- Ceviche has to be my absolute favourite. Invented by fishermen at sea, ceviche is made from fresh fish chopped up into small chunks and ‘cooked’ in lime juice and salt. It comes served with chopped tomatoes, red onion and cilantro and a side of chifles aka plantain chips. As a diabetic, it is great. It is virtually fat free and the main dish itself is completely carbohydrate free. As for the chifles, the portion sizes are usually quite small and as they are made from green plantain, they have a low GI of 40. The main thing to watch with chifles is your portion control as they are 1) carb heavy at 16g for every 28g portion, 2) fried, so contain fat and 3) addictive.
You can get ceviche de pescado (fish), pulpo (octopus), camaron (shrimp) and concha (shellfish). Prices range from about $2.50-$6.00. Bear in mind, local restaurants stop serving ceviche at 2pm.
encebollado- Encebollado is another very typical and delicious cholo food. It is made from cooked tuna and boiled yuca (soft potato like vegetable) in a delicious fish broth. Again this is a guilt free diabetic dish, as like green plantain, yuca also has a low GI of 46. Yuca contains a hefty 78g of carbohydrate per cup, but the serving is around half a cup, so the carb content is manageable.
salprieta (‘bananas’, peanuts and cheese)- Salprieta is a traditional meal/snack but not so diabetic friendly - this ‘dish’ is Manabi, Manabi, Manabi. It consists of a baked plantain (platano asado), the typical Ecuadorian cheese and ground peanuts. It’s cheap, it’s simple, it’s finger food and it’s eaten at any time of the day. While people here go crazy for it, it’s not my favourite and seeing that it consists primarily of carbohydrate (albeit low GI) and fat, its not one I’d recommend for diabetics.
biche-Biche is a seafood, peanut soup and is another absolute favourite of mine. You pick your choice of fish, mixed seafood or crab and it comes in a delicious thick peanut soup with chunks of soft plantain and yuca. While the carb content is not too high, it is higher in fat due to the peanuts. Also I’d recommend steering clear of the huge side serving of rice.
fruit, fruit, fruit- Fruit lovers rejoice because there is so much fruit here! During mango season, mangos are left to rot because there is such an overabundance. You’ll see entire trucks full of limes or green plantains on the roads. I’ve discovered a surprising number of new fruits since I’ve been here including naranjilla, guanabana and zapote, to name a few. Stick to fresh fruits instead of juices as whole fruits have a lower GI. Beware the super sweet mangos.
watch out for
- portion sizes and carb loaded sidesUsually lunchtime and dinner dishes come with white rice, which is high GI, but unfortunately brown rice is virtually impossible to get when eating out. If it doesn’t come with rice, it will likely come with chifles, plantain, beans/lentils or yucca. Often dishes come with a combination of the above, such as the bang for your buck $3.00 lunchtime almuerzos. Portions of rice alone are massive. So I eat the lentils and usually around a quarter of the rice. I hardly ever eat the plantain.
Whilst the food is fresh and the plantains and yucca low in GI, it’s crucial to exercise portion control. Locals generally eat the entire thing, accompanied by 2-3 cups of juice or cola (soda). For a typical almuerzo, this probably amounts to a whopping total carbohydrate intake of around 200g of carbohydrate or 20 units of insulin (1 ½ cups of rice = 67.50g carb, ½ cup of boiled lentils = 20g, one medium plantain = 57g, 2 x glass cola = 50g). When you do the math, it’s no surprise that Type 2 diabetes has been steadily increasing in Ecuador.
-street snacksSome traditional street snacks such as corbiches and empanadas are deep fried so I would steer clear of these. Stick to the delicious baked yucca bread (pan de almidon) or baked maize buns (tortillas)
Staples – Carbohydrate and GI values
Green Plantain, Medium (179g)Carb content | 57g GI | Boiled: 39 Fried (Chifles): 40
Ripe (sweet) Plantain, Medium (179g)Carb content | 74 g   GI | Boiled: 66 Fried: 90
White Rice, Cup (loosely packed, 132g)Carb content | 45g   GI | 89
Boiled Yuca, CupCarb content | 78g   GI | 46
history and sightseeing
For an interactive insight into the history of the ancient Manta tribes and what a traditional Manteño commune would have looked like, visit the historic commune of Agua Blanca, just five minutes north of Puerto Lopez. It costs $5 to enter but this money goes directly to the community and this includes an assigned guide to take you round the different parts of the commune. During a short walking tour you will get to see some of the original archeological sites as well as an impressive range of flora and fauna. The central museum holds a range of artifacts from the area that date back to different eras, the earliest of which is the Valdivian tribe (3500BC). The highlight is definitely a dip in the sacred sulfur spring which the King used to bathe in before solstice ceremonies.
If you simply want to kick back and relax on a beach for a day, my favourite beaches include: San Lorenzo, 20 minutes south of Manta, Los Frailes, 10 minutes north of Puerto Lopez, Puerto Cayo and Ayampe/las Tunas, on the border of Santa Elena. Make sure to bring high spf sunscreen, a hat and lots of water as generally the beaches lack shade.
This is one of the most popular activities and a key reason why many tourists come through towns like Puerto Lopez and Salango. Whale season is from June – October when humpback whales from Antarctica come to the tropical waters off the coast of Ecuador and Colombia to breed. You can see the whales almost anywhere off the coast of Ecuador but most people come to Machalilla national park to see them. I highly recommend going on a whale watching boat trip from Puerto Lopez or Salango if you are interested in getting up close and personal with jumping humpback whales. This costs around $25-30.
Ecuador is blessed with year round waves, being exposed to both north and south swells. The main season however is between November – March when it gets the tail end of north swells coming down from Alaska. The small fishing town of San Mateo boasts one of the longest waves in Ecuador at 500m long during a good swell. Safe to say when it’s firing, you can feel sufficiently stoked after just one wave.
Ayampe is also a top surf spot, offering the most consistent waves year round. It is a tiny little coastal town located by Rio Ayampe, in a lush green valley. It has become a hot spot for surfers and increasingly, yoga and lifestyle fans. The stretch of beach that runs from Ayampe to Las Tunas is my personal favourite, with the distinctive Los Ahorcados rock (‘the hanged ones’ – so named as it was where the priests used to hang native people who refused to convert) just off the beach, embellishing the horizon and making for an idyllic sunset shot. It is rapidly gaining in popularity with tourists but, as is often the case, this sadly means that the local communities presence is declining in the face of increasing foreign land-owners and tourist centred restaurants/hostels. What has developed so far has been tastefully done and by no means is it Montañita or Canoa yet, however, if you’re looking for a truly local experience, this is perhaps no longer it.
If tubular beach breaks are more your cup of tea then San Lorenzo, an ultra-local fishing town, has some great waves to offer; so much so that they hosted the Latin American Surf Championship this year. Similarly, San Jose has some mean waves when the bigger south swells hit and if you’ve got the grit to go out, safe to say you’re in for a ride.
Other good surf spots include Canoa in North Manabi. Whilst it has good waves, it’s not what it used to be. It has become a lot more tourist/backpacker centred in the past 5 years, arguably for the worse. I’ve heard reports from friends that it can be unsafe at night with men targeting foreign girls partying at beach bars. As a girl in Canoa, you should stick with a reliable male friend, watch your drink at all times, don’t accept any drinks from strangers and don’t go off on the beach by yourself for any reason.
The waves at Murcielago beach in Manta are also good with a west or north swell. Manta is where you’ll go for any shopping needs outside of basic groceries. It has a large supermarket and a shopping mall.
There is plenty of diving along the coast of Manabi but the top spots with the infrastructure are Salango, a small town just south of Puerto Lopez and La Isla de Plata (Silver Island), otherwise known as the poor mans Galapagos. Day trips to the island, which is about one hour by boat from Puerto Lopez, are regularly available to book from Puerto Lopez or Salango and should cost around $35. This includes the boat trip, a guide, a hike, lunch and snorkel gear. Scuba diving is also an option, with a number of shops in Puerto Lopez offering trips with gear. This costs around $90-120.
Wildlife on and around the island includes: spotted manta rays, sea lions, turtles, an array of different fish, dolphins (if you’re lucky), the famous blue footed boobie bird, frigate birds, hummingbirds and more.
It’s also worth grabbing a snorkel and dive mask and heading to the stunning beach of Los Frailes, a 10 minute bus ride north of Puerto Lopez. This beach is part of the Machalilla national park so the fish here are bold and plentiful. I’ve seen some of the biggest parrot fish of my life here. Make sure to bring a hat because there’s no shade on the beach and temperatures soar in the middle of the day.
Similairly, Puerto Lopez and Salango are great for fishing with many shops around town offering different deals on sports fishing trips, with boat trip and gear included. It will be your chance to catch your own Dorado (the main selling point around town). Alternatively, there are spearfishing tours which offer a more thrilling fishing experience. They will take you out to some of the best rocks off the coast of Puerto Lopez.
If you can rent or get your hands on your own speargun, you can always ask a local to take you out on their boat (for a price) or you can jump in anywhere on the coast, other than Machalilla national park, as this is a protected area. Good spots include San Mateo.
Kayaking is highly recommended. You can rent Kayaks in Canoa or Bahía de Caraquez if you are in the north of Manabi, or again, from Puerto Lopez. Renting from Puerto Lopez means you can kayak around the coast line and explore the beautiful beaches of Machalilla. It costs around $20 to rent a kayak for the day.
Mountain biking has taken off in Manabi and there are now many well established trails in the hills behind Puerto Lopez and around Puerto Viejo as well as the Canoa/Bahía area. There is one particularly epic trail that runs from the historical commune of Agua Blanca, just outside of Puerto Lopez, up to Puerto Viejo and onto Manta, if you’re feeling adventurous. Enquire at the rental equipment stores about the different trail options. Renting a bike should set you back a very reasonable $15 for the day.
Kite Surfing has also gained a reputation here, most prominently at the beach of Santa Marianita, about 20 minutes south of Manta. The waves are generally small but the winds are very consistent. There are lots of kitesurfing schools on the beach there where you can rent gear.