With a gorgeous coastline, an abundance of fresh seafood, and plenty of budget accommodations, Puerto Lopez is a dream destination for backpackers, adventure-seekers, and beach enthusiasts. Sitting halfway along Ecuador’s Ruta del Sol, or Sun Route, this modest seaside town offers easy access to great beaches, delicious cuisine, and even a nearby island known as the “Little Galapagos.” And the best part? Most of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have realized that it exists.
Somehow, Ecuador has managed to fly under the radar of many people planning vacations to South America. With bucket-list wonders like Machu Picchu in Peru and cultural hotspots like Buenos Aires, Argentina, stealing the spotlight, Ecuador tends to take a backseat to many of its more famous neighbors. Anyone who has visited Ecuador, however, can tell you that this gorgeous Andean country punches far above its weight in terms of scenery, adventure, and things to do.
One of the most often-overlooked regions in this often-overlooked country is the southwestern coast. There, you’ll find the Ruta del Sol winding along the ocean and through dusty seaside towns. It was along the Ruta del Sol that I backpacked for the very first time in 2008, and it was Puerto Lopez that stuck in my heart and beckoned me back two years later when I returned to Ecuador. Today, I want to share some of my favorite things about Puerto Lopez, along with completely up-to-date information for planning your own visit.
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This Article at a Glance
About Puerto Lopez and the Ruta del Sol
What is the Ruta del Sol?
The Ruta del Sol is a nickname given to the coastal route between Manta and Salinas in southwestern Ecuador. The road is very scenic and travels through numerous small beach towns and at least one national park. While you can drive between the two cities in about four hours without stopping, there are plenty of sights along the way that make it a worthy destination for a long weekend getaway or even a weeklong road trip.
Where is Puerto Lopez?
Puerto Lopez is a dusty little beach town that sits about halfway along the Ruta del Sol and is surrounded by Machalilla National Park. It’s a fishing village that also caters to tourists looking to visit the beaches, national park, and nearby islands. Although it’s not an exceptionally pretty or interesting town compared to other places in Ecuador, it does make a great base for exploring some great sights in the area.
While the town itself isn’t a stunner, its setting is. Puerto Lopez is nestled in a modest bay shaped roughly like a fishhook, with rolling headlands tumbling down to the sea on either end. A street called Malecón Julio Izurieta runs parallel to the ocean and is lined with tour outfits, restaurants, shops, and beach bars.
How Do You Get to Puerto Lopez?
There is no airport in Puerto Lopez, so you will need to make at least part of your journey by bus or private car. The closest airports are in Manta (110 kilometers away) and Guayaquil (200 km away). From there, multiple bus companies can take you to Puerto Lopez or anywhere on the Ruta del Sol.
Buses are the least expensive, albeit the slowest, way to travel in Ecuador. A bus from Guayaquil, which takes between 4-4.5 hours, can cost as little as $7. Buses are available (and very cheap) from Quito, but it’s much quicker and more comfortable to fly Manta or Guayaquil first if your budget allows.
You can also drive yourself, which allows the flexibility to stop for photos, food, and sightseeing at will, or take a private taxi.
The Best Things to Do in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
Visit Isla de la Plata: The “Poor Man’s Galapagos”
One of the most popular reasons that people put Puerto Lopez on their Ecuador itinerary is to visit nearby Isla de la Plata. This island is often called the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” or, more positively, the “Little Galapagos” due to its similar topography, flora, and fauna. It’s part of Machalilla National Park and home to blue-footed boobies, gannets, sea lions, dolphins, whales (in season) and more, with a significantly lower cost to visit than a pricey trip to the Galapagos Islands. It’s a good place to hike, birdwatch, snorkel, and scuba.
To be fair, the Galapagos Islands are a bucket list destination for a reason. Isla de la Plata can’t quite measure up to its big brother archipelago out in the Atlantic, but for those on a budget, it’s certainly worth a trip.
I have visited Isla de la Plata twice, with dramatically different experiences, and still recommend making the trip out to the island if you’re in the area. Most of the tour operators in town offer day trips that include hiking/exploring the island, snorkeling, and a boxed lunch.
- While a boxed lunch is provided on many tours to Isla de la Plata, it also wouldn’t be a bad idea to pack a few snacks.
- Bring – and frequently reapply – sunscreen, especially if the island is dry and shade is scarce. You’re very close to the equator, so the sun is quite strong. My negligence in this area resulted in one of the worst sunburns of my life.
- Check out my full list of tips for visiting Isla de la Plata here.
Experience Ecuador’s Most Beautiful Beach
On the mainland, Machalilla National Park includes some gorgeous stretches of coastline. About twenty-five minutes north of Puerto Lopez is an absolutely stunning beach some say is the most beautiful in all of Ecuador. Once you arrive, it doesn’t take long to see why.
Los Frailes is a half-moon of pale sand enclosed by rocky, golden cliffs that feels like your own slice of paradise. When I visited, it was practically deserted, and the recent rains had resulted in a lush green landscape. While the hills are usually drier and browner than my photos, it’s still one of the prettiest places in southwestern Ecuador. The clear blue water, glistening sand, and impressive cliffs more than make up for any lack of greenery.
There are a few hiking trails around Los Frailes, including a short path up to a mirador, or lookout point, located at the top of the northern ridge. At the time, I thought it the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen, and even after all my subsequent travels it still ranks solidly in the top ten.
- Admission is free, but you will need to show your passport at the entrance to Los Frailes. Don’t forget to bring it with you.
- Services at Los Frailes are limited, so it’s a good idea to bring some snacks and extra water.
- You will need to carry your trash back out with you, so a plastic bag or some sort of container for this purpose would be helpful.
- There are bathrooms and changing rooms in the parking lot.
Go Whale Watching
If you’re visiting Puerto Lopez or Ecuador’s southern coast at any point between June and September, you shouldn’t miss a chance to do some whale watching. Humpback whales travel all the way from Antarctica to mate and give birth in the warmer equatorial waters, and if you’re lucky you can catch a glimpse of them breaching.
Soak in a Natural Spring in an Ancient Indigenous Village
After a couple of days hiking Isla de la Plata and frolicking in the surf at Los Frailes, you’ll be ready for some relaxation. Luckily, a short distance from Puerto Lopez lies Agua Blanca, where a natural sulfur spring waits to welcome you into its therapeutic waters. Agua Blanca is an indigenous community located within Machalilla National Park. The area is ripe with history; people have been living there for thousands of years.
The $5 per vehicle admission fee charged at the entrance entitles you to a guided tour of the museum and a guided walk through the forest, though you can choose to hike alone if you would prefer. While you don’t have to visit the museum or the trails, they’re a worthwhile stop for anyone looking to gain a better appreciation for the history of the area and the culture of the community you’re visiting. It’s one of the oldest archaeological sites on the continent, with a large part of it yet to be excavated and explored.
An additional $1 per person grants you access to the cool spring, where you can also slather yourself in therapeutic mud before jumping in. It’s apparently good for healing sunburns, which I wish I had known at the time given the state of my shoulders after Isla de la Plata. Mud massages are also available.
You can DIY a visit Agua Blanca by car or by hiring a tuk-tuk (mototaxi), or you can take a tour through one of the outfits in town.
Catch a Sunset at a Beachfront Cabana Bar
After a long day in the hot sun, nothing tastes better than a cool, refreshing drink in an open-air bar. It’s a scientific fact that said drink is even more delicious if you can wiggle your toes into the sand while enjoying it.
Along the Malecón Julio Izurieta is a line of beach cabana bars where you can get any number of fruity drinks, plop yourself down on the sand, and watch the sun set out over the ocean.
The malecón gets pretty lively at night, so those up for a seaside party can have a blast. If you’re not the partying type, there’s still plenty of peace to be found earlier in the evening. Plus, the headlands on either end of the bay make the sunsets in Puerto Lopez extra stunning.
Indulge in Fresh, Delicious Seafood
The seafood in Puerto Lopez is some of the freshest you can get. At the end of each day, you can watch that evening’s menu items being unloaded from the fishing boats right there in the harbor. Make sure to take advantage of all the great food, especially dishes like ceviche (raw fish cured in citrus juice and spices) and my personal favorite, camarones al ajillo (shrimp in a garlic sauce).
There are plenty of restaurants across the road from the cabana bars on Malecón Julio Izurieta, some of which also serve food. Recommendations include Sabor Español, Aloha Coffee and Restaurant, La Cabaña D’Chuky, Patacón Pisa’o, and De Jimmy’s.
Where to Stay in Puerto Lopez
One of the best things about Puerto Lopez (and Ecuador in general) is that there are plenty of clean, comfortable accommodations at very low prices. It’s rare for a room in Puerto Lopez to cost more than $100 per night on a non-holiday weekend, and many good places are between $40-$70.
When I first visited Puerto Lopez, we stayed at a budget guesthouse called Hostal Tuzco. In the years since, it has been beautifully renovated and renamed Tuzco Lodge. There’s a pool, air conditioning, WiFi, and more, all with great online ratings and breakfast included.
Other recommendations include Nautilus Lodge, Hostería Mandála, Hotel Ancora, House of Gates, and Tsafiki Hosteria. Regardless of your budget, you’re sure to find a great place to stay in Puerto Lopez!
Other Destinations on the Ruta del Sol
In addition to Puerto Lopez, there are plenty of other worthwhile destinations on the southwestern coast of Ecuador, including:
Located at the northern end of the route, Manta is a fishing and commercial shipping port. While it is bigger and busier than other towns along the Ruta del Sol, there are plenty of watersports and a couple of nice beaches to occupy your time. From personal experience on a later trip, I would recommend making Manta your lowest priority stopover, but it does have some merits. You can reach Manta from Quito (6.5 hours by car, about 8 by bus) or Guayaquil (3.5-4 hours).
My Ecuadorian study abroad host brother, Sebastián, is particularly fond of Montañita, a bohemian surfing town with a fun, party vibe located about an hour south of Puerto Lopez. This place is a backpacker’s paradise, especially if you’re more of the hippie or free-spirited sort. You can shop in the plethora of souvenir, craft, and clothing stalls, learn to surf, do yoga, and eat food from any number of international cuisines. It’s also home to one of Ecuador’s better beaches, with great surfing especially from January to April. If you’re the party type, you’ll have ample opportunity to rage on the beach until dawn. If you’re not, Montañita might be a better day trip destination.
While we, unfortunately, didn’t get to spend much time in Salinas, it’s worth a visit. I’ve often heard it called “Ecuador’s Miami” due to the abundance of lovely beaches, delicious seafood, and fun things to do like whale watching and watersports. It’s an incredibly popular destination for Ecuadorians. Salinas is about two and a half hours from both Puerto Lopez and Guayaquil.
Don’t get caught without a hotel, like we did! There are plenty of great places to stay in Salinas.
Final Tips for Visiting Puerto Lopez and the Ruta del Sol
- Ecuadorians love to hit the beach, especially on weekends and holidays. Make sure to book your transportation and lodging well in advance if you’re traveling the Ruta del Sol during those times. This is especially true during Carnaval.
- In our experience, dress in Puerto Lopez was backpacker-casual. Make sure to pack plenty of comfortable clothes and shoes for spending time outside. A bathing suit is a must, as is sunscreen. (If you can, buy your sunscreen before you arrive, as prices in Puerto Lopez were pretty steep.) Bug spray wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
- There are lots of tour providers in town that offer very similar excursions. Feel free to shop around, and don’t be afraid to respectfully ask if they can do better than the first price quoted. We had a great experience day-tripping to Isla de la Plata with Cercapez, and although that was years ago, their online reviews suggest that they still offer a great product.
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