About an hour down the Panamerican from Montañita is its alterego, the village of Puerto Lopez. Colourful boats are tethered on the shore and every morning the fishermen unload their catch, running from the hordes of birds that try with some success to whisk away a fish or two.

One of the first things we did upon arriving was head to the tourist office where we bought a $20 (US) pass to the Machilalla National Park, the only coastal nature reserve in Ecuador. We thought the ticket was a bit steep but discovered over the next few days that the area is worthy of its price tag.

Aguas Blancas is a small indigenous village that exists within the park. The villagers seem quite proud of their little piece of park and a local guide happily took us exploring. In a small museum, we were shown funerary urns full of human remains from the Machilalla culture (BC 2000) that were found in the area. As well as curved stone benches that were thought to be small thrones for community leaders. The museum has accompanied these artifacts with jars of pickled insects and reptiles that greet you ominously at the door. Pickled remains beside dust remains, I guess it isn’t that incongruous.

A little deeper into the park we were treated to a smelly sulphurous lagoon lined with rich warm mud that is considered therapeutic and amazing for your skin. It was impossible to resist. We covered every inch of bare skin in the smelly stuff and then sat in the sun while it dried and cracked. I washed off in the lagoon and then couldn’t stop petting my soft arms.

We tried to get to another site that day, Playa Los Frailes, but missed out because the beach closes at 4 pm and the park ranger stops letting people enter at 3. We arrived at 3:30! Still craving beach, we headed down the road to Machilalla Beach which isn’t part of the national park  but is still incredibly picturesque with its emerald green water and blue fishing boats.

Perhaps the most renowned site within Machilalla National Park, and referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos, is Isla de la Plata (or, Island of Silver). The story goes that the pirate Sir Francis Drake stashed his stolen treasure here, far from the Spanish Armada. No actual treasure has been found but people are still holding out hope, at least for the sake of tourism. We took an organized tour to the island, which included the boat trip, a guided hike, lunch and snorkelling. The island was teeming with birds. Perched on almost every rock were blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, frigates, albatrosses, and Nazca boobies. We were able to get up really close and even watch while females kept their newborn chicks warm, fuzzy baby birds took their first steps and grown up birds groomed themselves.

The animals are the only civilization on the island and I hope it stays that way. Humans would ruin the rugged wild beauty.

Later, while relaxing on the boat, we spotted enormous turtles that came to peck at lettuce the boat crew had thrown in. A school of tropical fish came to join them and we were surrounded. The fish and turtles kept popping up on different sides of the boat much to the tourists’ chagrin who were all trying to snap photos. The boat kept tipping from side to side as the group ran from starboard to port chasing the school of fish.

Finally, on our last day in the area, we tried again to reach Playa Los Frailes. We got an earlier start and gave ourselves the whole day to soak up the hike, the many look-out points and beaches. The first beach had black sand, pale green water and a sky that seemed to tremble with clouds. It was deserted except for us. A little farther was Playa Tortuguita, or little turtle named after the small island that looks like a turtle popping out of the water. The waves crashed powerfully against the rocks and we stood for several minutes watching the spray explode into the air like geysers.

Playa Los Frailes is the treat at the end of the trail, a gorgeous, pristine beach with absolutely no vendors or garbage because… it’s a national park! Hooray for national parks. I wish all beaches could be preserved this way. We’ve been to a lot of beaches on this trip but I think Los Frailes is one of my favourites because it is still in its original untouched condition.