Atacames  Road To  Atacames  Lush  Esmeraldas  Province 5372

Where to stay

Casa Aliso Quiet, ten-room boutique hotel in the traditional La Floresta neighbourhood of Quito, close to a part of the city known affectionately as ‘Gringoland’. It was once a doctor’s house and his old textbooks line the shelves. Helpful, motivated young staff. Doubles from £87. Francisco Salazar E 12-137 y Toledo, Quito, 00 593 2 2 528 062,

Casa Ceibo Lie in hammocks amid the beautiful gardens at this secluded hotel on the estuary at Bahía de Caráquez. Choose between the 15 rooms and a selection of suites. Some have Jacuzzis, but there’s a spa and pool too. Doubles from £95. Km. 5, Ave. Sixto Durán Ballén, Bahía de Caráquez, 00 593 5 2399 399,

Playa Cristal Resort About a dozen glass box chalets designed by the engineer-owner surround a large pool. It abuts an empty beach, bar the odd cows being driven to milking by boys on horseback, that stretches as far as the eye can see. Doubles from £76. Km 17 vía Pedernales, Cojimies, 00 593 2 3360 464,

Poseidon Hotel Set in the burgeoning business quarter, four storeys of a pristine 16-storey condo that has a gastronomic rooftop restaurant, brasserie and sea-facing infinity pool. Forty luxury rooms and suites, and a selection of apartments. Doubles from $129. Km 1.5 vía a Barbasquillo, Manta, 00 593 5 500 2800,

Travel Information

Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar, and time is five hours behind the UK. The average high temperature in April is 18C and the average low 10C. Journey time to Quito from the UK is 17 hours.

Avianca offers seven flights a week from London Heathrow to Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport via Bogotá.

Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador has tips for travellers, itineraries covering the breadth of the country and the latest news and events. Geo Reisen Ecuador is located in Quito, Ecuador, and runs expert tours to areas both well known and off the beaten track. Explore the coast, Andes, Amazon jungle and Galápagos Islands.

To offset your emissions, visit where donations go towards supporting environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 2.66 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £19.95.

Where to eat

Atacames On the other side of the seafront, Malecón, are narrow lanes packed with street food vendors come evening. Be brave and try the great-value skewered meats, soup and grilled corn, all of varying quality.

Esmeraldas beach Some of the choicest street food, most of it fried, is sold here. Look out for the freshly squeezed juices and tropical fruit too. Pastry turnovers, like spicy Spanish empanadas, are wonderful.

Martinica Arguably the best restaurant in Ecuador, certainly for fish. Omar Rivadeneira is a chef with a fine palate and a real sense of his Ecuadorian identity. £19, including wine. Umiña #2, Mz I, Lote 1, Vía a Barbasquillo, Manta, 00 593 5 261 3735,

Montecristi Golf Club & Villas The clubhouse and dining rooms operate autonomously and the traditional Ecuadorian cuisine, especially the cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew), has some inventive touches under the watchful eye of chef Paul Cisneros. £14. Km 2.5 vía Montecristi, Montecristi, 00 593 5 25 900 20,

Muya Classy but simple bistro cuisine, using fresh ingredients. Try dishes like fillet steak in chocolate sauce. The chocolate cake to follow is to die for. £14. Cdla Universitaria Calle U8 y Peatonal U3, Manta

Food Glossary

Omnipresent relish served at all Ecuadorian meals
Mashed and fried green plantain balls
Generic term for shrimps and prawns
Highly valued relative of the bream/perch family
Conchas negras
Small black cockles or shells
Large round fish related to seabass
Sort of plantain croquette with tuna stuffing
Empanadas de viento
Cross between fried patties and cheese puffs
Tuna soup topped with raw red onion
Shellfish soup with coconut milk that is sometimes served in a coconut shell
Roundish white bean, eaten fresh
Latitud Cero
Craft beer worth searching for
Kind of blackberries used as a juice
These look like little oranges but are in fact closer to tomatoes
Pan de yuca
Chewy breakfast roll made from yucca root
Patas de burros
Literally ‘donkeys’ feet’ but actually sea snails made into a soup
Drink made with eau de vie, egg yolks and condensed milk
Generic term for soups and soup-stews of which there are countless in Ecuador
Soup-stew containing shrimp and corn

Food and Travel Review

Manta is Ecuador’s ‘tuna capital’. In the commercial port, cranes lift yellowfin by the tonne onto the wharf. Most of it ends up as export, the best of it fresh or frozen and the rest in cans. At restaurant Martinica, chef Omar Rivadeneira makes a marine tournedos Rossini using only the finest grade A. To do this, he tops the slow-cooked fillet, still blood red, with foie gras from the neighbouring province of Guayas. Instead of Madeira wine, he pours a cordon of sauce around it, flavoured with panela, raw cane sugar. The combination of tastes is luscious, rich and delicious.

A short flight from the capital, Quito, Ecuador’s coastal provinces Manabí and Esmeraldas have escaped the packaged pleasures of international tourism. Outsiders may often head instead for the Galápagos Islands, the Andes or the Amazon. Manta itself is a working town. It comes to life at 6.30am with the equatorial sunrise. Then, joggers and power-walkers like troops ofan ant army attack the golden kilometres of Murciélago beach. Guarded by pelicans and attacked by frigatebirds scavenging for scraps, the fish market is at its peak. Tricycle-driven carritos (mobile food stalls) set up on the sand. One sells coconut, pineapple and watermelon juices. Another simmers encebollado (fish soup) made with albacore tuna and shredded red onion. For a dollar, José Antonio Delgado, late of the army catering corps, will sell you a tuna stew topped with ceviche and a ladleful of rice.

There’s not a barbecued guinea pig in sight. Travellers returning from Ecuador tell tales of this delicacy, munched in some Andean village. Here in the Pacific Rim, why bother with furry animals that have less flesh on their legs than frogs? Instead, rock lobster, black clams, bass and camotillo, a kind of perch that’s a locals’ favourite, flap on the fishmongers’ slabs. Whenever President Rafael Correa stays at his Quito residence, Carondelet Palace, he steps onto the balcony to acknowledge supporters waving flags in the plaza below. A man of the people, he has built roads, endowed hospitals and improved schools as part of a ‘Citizens’ Revolution’, financing them with his nation’s oil revenues. He has also sired the odd white elephant.

Ciudad Alfaro, a short drive from Manta, looks like a surreal town hall set beside a giant brown egg. Perched on an isolated hilltop, Correa built it to house the National Assembly he created after gaining office in 2007. His vision never materialised. The site was too far from the capital. Now it passes as a museum and mausoleum – the ‘egg’ honouring Ecuador’s first liberal president, Eloy Alfaro Delgado.

This modernist folly overlooks the small town of Montecristi, the statesman’s birthplace and the spiritual home of Panama hats. Artisans who make them here complain that the Central American country stole their identity. They have a case. By the 19th century, Manabí was exporting its tightly woven palm straw hats to the Isthmus of Panama, where they were shipped around the world. Thus the confusion occured. Nobody ever bothered to ask where they originated. Soft and pliable, a superfine ‘Montecristi’ (the highest grade) can retail for up to about £2,000.

To Ecuadorians in the know, it epitomises luxury and taste. That’s why Susana Cárdenas Overstall adopted the name when setting up her company Montecristi Chocolate. Her first encounter with cacao was at her father’s plantation. ‘I was eight to ten years old and he told me we were going to roast them, peel them and make chocolate. I remember how proud I was when I took it to show my friends at school the next day,’ she says.

Fast forward more than a decade and Overstall had moved to London. ‘I started working in chocolate; I went to Salon du Chocolat in Paris, Italy, New York, saw plantations in Central America and learned,’ she explains. Returning home, she found a business partner and channelled her knowledge into producing organic couverture using Arriba Nacional.

Ecuador’s beans have a unique flavour profile. Arriba means ‘upriver’ and is more of a geographical designation; the second part is more telling. ‘Nacional’ are actually Forastero beans – usually destined for the mass-market – but those grown in Ecuador have a finer, more nuanced taste. In the past, smallholders grew the beans, fermented and dried them as best they could and sold them for pennies to middlemen who offloaded them to corporations like Nestlé. You can still see trails of beans drying on the coastal highway in Esmeraldas.

Today, thanks to makers like Montecristi and Pacari exploring the beans’ potential – and notching up international awards – Ecuador is emerging as a rival to Venezuela in terms of quality. The local chefs have got onboard too, and you can sample it in biscocho, an ebony ganache cake with hints of honey and rose petals made by Tati Castillo at Manta restaurant Muya.

The equator runs almost in between Manabí and Esmeraldas. It may be counterintuitive, but the landscape changes within metres of the coastline. South of Manta, it’s dry and dusty, even during rainy season. Clusters of kapok trees rise above the scrub. To the north, patches of rice paddies intersperse with palm, grenadillo and banana plantations. Mangrove swamps line the estuaries. Across the Remachi river separating the provinces, scenery turns lush and tropical.

High-rise hotels, condos and resorts rarely figure here. Imagine a virgin Costa Brava or Costa del Sol where fishermen keep a few cattle, driving them along the shore for milking. Paint in a few coconut trees, plastic jetsam washed up by the tide and sunsets that happen faster than the click of a camera shutter. Together they blend into a tourist-free ribbon stretching for hundreds of kilometres.

With no Répertoire de la Cuisine linking them, every village, every cook has his, or more usually her, way of preparing food. Ecuador’s ceviche differs from Peru’s. Diced and blanched before marinating, it has endless variations. The only unifying theme is the citrus juice that lifts them. Lemons can excite romantics to poetry: Ayer pasaste por mi casa; Y me tiraste un limón; El limón cayó al suelo; Pero el jugo quedó en mi corazón. It means: yesterday you passed my house; and threw me a lemon. It fell on the ground; but the juice stayed in my heart.

Finding menus without camarones on them would be impossible. Ecuador is the world’s third-largest shrimp exporter. Farmed in giant pools, they come in assorted sizes and guises. Their taste depends on the water as much as the feed. Those reared in rivers are blander than those from brackish water. To claim wild ones are better seems a no brainer, though few connoisseurs can tell them apart. It’s standard practice to furnish a dining table with a fresh bowl of ají. This green and mild, by Latin American standards, chilli relish, can contain shallots, garlic, tomato, pepper and coriander.

Often with none too many male chefs to spoil the broth, women rule the kitchens. At Casa Ceibo, a hideaway inn outside Bahía de Caráquez, chef Narciso dishes up expert plantain fritters and cubes of fresh cheese (patacones y queso criollo) for breakfast along with buttery fried bolones (deep fried green plantain croquettes), viche (corn and king prawn soup) and pan de yuca (hot, chewy gobstoppers of baked yucca root).

In Mompiche, a fishing village with a hostel and handful of scruffy backpacker bars, Margarita Alemania Gonzalez Diaz cooks to order inside a split bamboo shack. What to eat depends on what she has bought that morning. Her black clam soup, shellfish rice coloured with annatto or shrimp ceviche with fresh tomato ají are good enough to bring tears to your eyes. The bill for four including Club beers is about £20. Within a generation, Mompiche could morph into something rather different.

Just over an hour’s drive north is Atacames. Four hours from Quito, it’s the destination of choice for weekends and summer holidays. The frenetic seafront drag, Malecón is lined with dancing bars. Merengue vies with Afro-Caribbean Reggaetón and three- step Colombian salsa choque. A fiver will buy you four cervezas but there aren’t any queues. Blackboards advertise caipirinhas. Side streets are packed with stalls hawking meat skewers, or pinchos. It’s a pickpocket’s paradise, but otherwise safe. Children hang out with their parents till the early hours. Five minutes away by road, ten by yuk-tuk, tonsure hints at how a prosperous Ecuador might look. Modern blocks jostle with each other even before the roads linking them can be completed. It’s a higgledy-piggledy, speculative type of development that’s new to a country once among the poorest in the Americas.

As yet it’s an anomaly. It hasn’t spread to Esmeraldas city. Where Manta is modernising, this provincial capital has remained lazy, in the best sense; slightly run-down and relaxed. At weekends, half its inhabitants and hundreds bussed in from surrounding hamlets gravitate to the beach. Street food sold under multicoloured parasols is cheap as plantain chips and better than any restaurant. Ladies preparing corviche cook with elaborate care. A quenelle shaped palatine mash, it contains tuna forcemeat. First they fry it to set the outer surface, then split it and return to the oil to finish off the insides. It’s packed with coleslaw and topped with dressing. Omar Rivadeneria himself couldn’t improve it. Martinica’s menu borrows the cooking of the street, the beach cafe, or the home and makes it sumptuous. ‘I started preparing food I could sell but it was always flavourful,’ says Rivadeneria. ‘Once customers trusted me, I started cooking things I wanted to make.’

Isolated from the whirligig of global culinary fashion, he has evolved his own style. Jipijapa ceviche mixes octopus, squid, and shellfish. Sweet lobster, soft enough to eat with a spoon, is coated in saffron sauces and dusted with flower petals. Shromps in red pepper and coconut cream stand on a croquette of sweet plantain. Camotillo Molinero is a dish that matches seared fish with crushed fresh white beans, called habihuelas. If there were other chefs like him, Ecuador’s seaboard could pass as the new Peru. As yet there are too few. It does, though, have a wonderful resource in its home cooking. The recipes handed down through the generations deserved to be cherished.

Get Premium access to all the latest content online

Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe