Everyone knows that Salinas on the southern Pacific coast of Ecuador has beautiful beaches that can be enjoyed year-round. After all, that’s why it is the most popular beach resort in the country. There are plenty of things to do near, in, on, and even under the water in Salinas—but what about when you want something that doesn’t involve sand, sun, and ocean?
Fortunately, Salinas has you covered there as well. Let’s look at just five of the non-beachy things to do on the Santa Elena peninsula.
1. Visit the La Puntilla Nature Preserve
Okay, granted this one is technically by the ocean, and if you are able and brave enough, there are some excellent surfing areas—but the La Puntilla Nature Preserve is a great place to spend time enjoying nature on dry land too. Opened in October of 2008, La Puntilla is a nature and wildlife preserve that consists of almost 15 miles of roads, trails, and bike paths. Access is through the military base, and there are three main sections to the park.
If you visit the first of the three areas, La Loberia, there is a viewing pavilion for los lobos del mar, or sea wolves. You can watch dozens of these giant mammals sunning themselves on the rocks there, and occasionally getting into squabbles over the best spots. At the tip of the peninsula is La Chocolatera, and sitting atop a hill overlooking the whole Santa Elena peninsula is the mirador (lookout) called El Morro.
La Chocolatera have a snack bar, bathrooms, and a small area of souvenir vendors. It has a marker showing the westernmost tip of the mainland of Ecuador, and an unusual stone lighthouse. It is called La Chocolatera because of the brown color of the volcanic rock there, which is pummeled almost constantly by the dramatically crashing waves on the rocky shore.
El Morro also has a snack bar and bathrooms, and an informative Visitor’s Center with displays about the park, local wildlife, and the history of the area. At the very top is an overlook where you can see the entire Santa Elena peninsula.
La Puntilla is a place where you will see lizards and iguanas scurrying along the pathways, a wide variety of birds (including hummingbirds), and if you are there at the right time of year, even watch whales playing in the rough and choppy waters.
2. Experience Museo Los Amantes de Sumpa
People have been living on the Santa Elena peninsula for over 10,000 years, and there are many archeological wonders to be found there. One of these is a world-renown site where the city of Santa Elena meets La Libertad, about 10 miles from Salinas. It is called “The Museum of the Lovers of Sumpa” after its most popular attraction. “Sumpa” is another name for the region, and “the Lovers” are the skeletal remains of a young couple. They appear to be a 25-year old man and a 20-year old woman buried in a loving embrace. You can view the site in situ, as they have simply built a structure around the excavation and covered it in glass to protect it.
The museum also has a collection of artifacts that take you through the rich history of coastal Ecuador, and a recreation of a village where you can see how the people lived, worked, and slept. There are also marked displays of the many plants, herbs, fruits, and vegetables that grow there.
3. Search for the perfect almuerzo
An interesting lunchtime option in Ecuador is the almuerzo. Technically, this translates just as “lunch”, but when used in restaurants it refers to a lunch special. Sometimes it is also called the executive.
Whatever it is called, it is a wonderfully delicious and economical way to experience some of the variety of foods on the coast. Typically, an almuerzo will be either a fixed-menu or at least a limited options meal. It usually includes several courses, starting you off with a soup and fresh juice. The main plate most often is made up of some rice, a small salad, plantains, and then the “meat of the day.”
The variety in these basic parts is where the fun comes in. The soup may be chicken, fish, shrimp, crab, vegetable, or beef. The main course might be fish, chicken, beef, or pork. Sometimes it is a seco, which is similar to stew but thicker in consistency. Whatever it is, it is always delicious. Part of the fun is they change day to day, so you never quite know what to expect.
Oh yes, I mentioned economical. An almuerzo that includes the soup, salad, main plate, and a juice will cost you between $2.50 and $4.
4. Catch a movie at the Mall
Just outside the city limits of Salinas is the El Paseo Mall of La Libertad. This is a place where North Americans can feel right at home—a modern mall, with everything you would expect to find in any U.S. mall. There are banks, salons, and pharmacies; small stores selling appliances, electronics, clothing, shoes, and pets; a “big box” store with grocery, household, toys, hardware, and paint sections; and of course, a Food Court and Multi-Screen Movie Theater.
The movies at El Paseo are mostly in Spanish, although some will have English subtitles. But the there is always one screen that shows a popular, first-run movie in English at the last showing each day. And remember, if you are 65 or over, you get your tickets half-price!
5. Shop the markets of La Libertad
If you are not a mallrat, and want a more traditionally Ecuadorian experience, visit the market area of La Libertad. Locally, the Mall is known as the place where “rich people” and tourists shop, while most of the commerce conducted by the residents take place in the bustling commercial district of La Libertad.
Your first visit can be a little overwhelming. Walking uphill on one of the main streets, you pass shop after shop that seems to be spilling out into the streets. In fact, that is exactly what they are doing. It is common to walk on the road itself, as the sidewalks are packed with merchandise.
There is an incredible proliferation of goods available, and this is where the real bargains are found. For example, brand name shorts and tees are on display for $5 each, or three for $10. Leave your debit and credit cards at home though—all transactions are cash only, and often without a receipt.
Turning left off the main road, you walk by shop after shop with colorful displays of fruit and vegetables. Vendors with carts go up and down the streets with special offers on their wares, competing with the stream of yellow taxis dropping off and picking up shoppers. As you make your way further, you find fresh chicken, pork, and beef being butchered to order, and things like grains, flour, and dried beans. Really, you could do all of your grocery shopping on this street, as do most Ecuadorians.
The stalls and stands cover blocks and blocks over several streets, including my personal favorite area—the seafood market. This covered area has rows of clean stalls, all with running water, electricity, and refrigerated storage. Seafood of all types are sold here, from 100-pound tunas down to shrimp, and everything in between. Fish prices are about $2.50 per pound, and they will filet them for you, giving you the carcass to take to for your soups. Shrimp runs between $4-$7 per pound depending on size and whether you want them cleaned, while a pound of fresh lobster tails will set you back $8.
Bonus: Join an expat group
There are at least 1,000 expats living fulltime on the Santa Elena peninsula, and many more North Americans that winter there. That means there are plenty of activities going on if you are looking for some company. There are book clubs, garden clubs, and charitable groups that work locally. There are regular cribbage competitions, poker games, trivia contests, karaoke, and dance parties as well. In fact, it seems like something is always going on in Salinas.
That’s just a short list of the many things to see and do in Salinas, Ecuador. It is indeed a wonderful and exciting beach resort, but it is also so much more.