I’ve heard Los Frailes beach is the best beach in Ecuador. Of course, I haven’t seen all the beaches in Ecuador. But after two hours trekking through the hot forest, I look down from the mirador to the long beach that arcs in a perfect white curve away from me, and I can easily see why they might say it. I wipe sweat out of my eyes and let the breeze dry my skin. It’s a good day to be alive.
Playa de los Frailes — Friar’s Beach — is a cresent moon of white sand meeting clear water, bordered on both sides by sheltering cliffs, set in the green expanse of Machalilla national park. Los Frailes beach makes a great day trip from Puerto Lopez or Montañita, neither of which provide a beach as picturesque as Los Frailes for a long day of sun.
Just north of Puerto Lopez, Machalilla is the only national park on the coastline of Ecuador. It can be reached on the bus for US$1 from Puerto Lopez or a few dollars from further south. The stop is hard to spot, so make sure the driver knows you’re getting off at Los Frailes. Or just follow the Ecuadorians with beach bags. You can also catch a cab, of course, but the local busses are great fun, cheap, and come fairly regularly. My memories of many Ecuador day trips include perfect scenes of hanging out the open window of a local bus, listening to tinny Ecuadorian radio and tasting the big salty Pacific ocean.
You’ll come to the entrance to Machalilla national park — open from 7am to 5pm — and be asked to sign in with name and passport number. It’s free to enter. From there, it’s a quick tuk tuk ride (US$1-2 per person, depending on your skills) or a half hour march to Playa de los Frailes along the main track. If you’re like me and you like to earn your relaxation, take the longer walking route.
The walking track heads roughly north west from the entrance through the forest, taking us past several beautiful beaches and the high lookout point. We don’t start early enough, and the heat of the day comes down hard on us by midway through the walk. At each beach, we take off our shoes and paddle to our shins in the cool waves. Though you can do this walk in an hour if you push, you’ll want more time to spend on these empty white beaches.
The beaches you’ll see along the way are beautiful, but not built for swimming, with strong currents and sometimes big, unpredictable waves. We dip our toes in, but put the real swimming off until we reach Los Frailes; after 2.5 hours of wandering, diving into the clear waves is heaven.
The last stretch of the trail is an uphill slog to reach the frigate bird lookout — Mirador Las Frigates — and it’s worth the climb, offering views back up the coast, and south towards your final destination of Los Frailes beach. The breeze up at the lookout is a welcome change to the swampy still forest air. We nearly plummet to our untimely deaths trying to take the perfect lookout picture. You can’t even see the perfect view in our clumsy attempts, so that doesn’t last long — the flawless reality of Los Frailes is enough to get us powering down the hill to the beach. That perfect lookout picture still doesn’t exist.
Time required: day trip
Cost: >US$5 if you take the bus and walk there instead of taking a tuk tuk.
Highlights: Forest walking track, gorgeous beaches, lookout, arguably the best swimming beach in Ecuador.
What to take
+ Lunch. You can buy an icecream from the entrance to the park but there’s no real food. Pack some sandwiches or bakery treats so hunger doesn’t push you home early.
+ Suncream + hat + shade. There are a few enterprising individuals renting beach umbrellas for $5 or so at the entrance, but other than that it’s just you and the big bright sol, so take plenty of 50+, a hat, and a shade if you have it.
+ Walking shoes. Though you can do the walks in flip-flops, trainers is a more sensible option, especially if there’s been rain, as the paths can get stodgy.
+ Swimwear. Obviously. Just don’t forget.
+ Camera. You’ll want it for these views. Los Frailes beach is fairly underpopulated due to it being harder to reach, and I left my DSLR in my bag while I went swimming without a problem. If you’re worried, take shifts!
+ Your passport number. Not the passport! Just memorise or write down your number for the entrance gate.