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Monday, February 14, 2011

Machalilla - Hidden Treasure of the Pacific Coast

Isla de la Plata

Ecuador has long been known for its biodiversity and has become an important destination for the avid naturalist.  However, the lure of exotic locations, such as Mindo and the Amazon Basin, has concealed many of the significant animal sanctuaries of this tiny nation. Machalilla National Park is one of these hidden jewels providing refuge for the extensive variety of flora and fauna of the Pacific Coast.


Concern for the decline in natural forest along the Pacific Coast due to agricultural development prompted the Ecuadorian government to pass a decree in July of 1979 to establish Machalilla as a protected area. Approximately 56,000 ha (138,000 ac) of land was classified as part of the Machalilla National Park including several islands such as Isla de la Plata, an expanse of beach and coastline, and various forest regions encompassing dry, cloud and rain forest habitats. The reserve was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1998, providing it recognition as an important wildlife environment and giving it world protective status. In 2005, BirdLife International designated the park as an Important Bird Area due to the vulnerability of over thirty species of birds residing within the region.


Parque National Machalilla is located in the southeastern province of Manabi. The area is easily accessible by air or ground transportation. There is a regional airport in the city of Manta, a few kilometers north of the park. From this point it is a short drive by taxi or bus to the many towns and villages that surround the park. Puerto Lopez is one of the larger and more convenient of these locations, offering numerous hostels and hosterias for visitors.

Ground transportation from Quito or Guayaquil is available at very reasonable prices. There are direct and regularly scheduled busses that visit the major locations surrounding the park. It should be noted that although this is an economical means of travel, it might require many hours to traverse the country.

Although travel to the islands such as Isla de la Plata is restricted, regular excursions are available transporting visitors to these popular destinations. Once on the isles there are guided tours indicating the highlights of the area including the diverse flora and fauna.

Flora and Fauna

Nazca Booby (Sula granti)
Machalilla National Park is an extremely biodiverse area and many species within the region are considered vulnerable. In addition to the jaguar and the ocelot, there are two species of monkeys, the Mantled Howler and the White-headed Capuchin, that inhabit the denser forest areas. Brocket and White-tailed Deer, which were once abundant, have been hunted to near extinction. The reserve is home to the remaining one percent of the previous scrub desert and forest of western Ecuador. Humpbacked Whales regularly visit offshore, drawing researchers and marine biologists to monitor their movements.

There are more than 270 species of birds within the reserve, many of them identified by BirdLife International as vulnerable. The Grey-backed Hawk, Grey-cheeked Parakeet, Esmeraldas Woodstar, Slaty Becard, and Blackish-headed Spinetail are considered endangered. Traveling offshore to Isla de la Plata, commonly called the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, visitors can observe three species of Boobies as well as Tropicbirds and Frigatebirds. This island is also home to the only nesting group of Waved Albatross outside of the Galapagos Archipelago.

Accommodations and Attractions
Although Machalilla is off the beaten path, it is well worth the traveler’s efforts to pay a visit to this magnificent park along the Pacific coast. Whether a serious bird-watcher or a casual vacationer, there are activities that will meet the desires of everyone. A visit to this tropical paradise will delight everyone and provide memories for a lifetime. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Exploring the Tropical Rainforest of Ecuador

Tropical Rainforest

The tropical rainforest, for many, is a wonderland of exotic animals, brightly adorned birds, towering trees and unfathomable mystery. It is a place that is frequently dreamt about but seldom visited. Movies, such as “Avatar” and “Predator”, espouse its beauty while subtly alluding to its imperceptible dangers. It is a refuge of fantasy and a nightmare of uncertainty. The tropical rainforest is a destination of adventure and discovery. Ecuador is at the heart of this adventure and is ripe for exploration.


The tropical rainforest can be found within a narrow band that circumvents the earth between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5o N latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5o S latitude). This region corresponds with the tilt of the earth, marking the winter and summer solstices. Twice a year every point within this sector will experience the direct rays of the sun. Ecuador is at the very center of this region, straddling the equator from which it takes its name.

Although the tropical rainforest occupies less than six percent of the world’s land surface, eighty percent of the earth’s biodiversity can be found within its boundaries. Rains in excess of 125 cm (50 in) per year and the protective covering of the forest canopy provide a terrarium like atmosphere conducive of plant and animal survival.

In addition to the rainforest, Ecuador boasts a tropical cloud forest where moistures is not attained from torrential rains but by extracting it from the prevalent mantel of vapor that envelops the area. Of Ecuador’s total landmass, forty percent can be designated as tropical rainforest, of which forty-four percent is protected for conservation of biodiversity.

The forest environment can be divided into four distinct layers. The uppermost or emergent level includes trees that extend from 40 – 80 m (130 – 260 ft) in height. These behemoths tower above the canopy and must be resistant to high winds and the direct rays of the scorching sun. Eagles and other birds of prey, bats, butterflies and some monkeys find refuge among the branches of these giants of nature.

Below these lofty titans lies the canopy that forms a protective envelope for the flora and fauna of the woodland below. Blocking ninety-nine percent of the solar radiation, it is a labyrinth of foliage, vines and branches providing sustenance and security for a myriad of birds, of which there are over 1,600 species, snakes and amphibians that call it home.

Beneath the shield of the canopy plants exhibit oversized leaves that are mandatory to absorb the restricted light penetrating the dense foliage. Insects are bountiful and the humidity reaches its zenith. This region is referred to as the understory, where large cats such as jaguars and leopards roam the jungle floor, along with tapirs, peccaries and other large rodents. Tree frogs sing in melodious harmony, some of the 447 amphibian species within Ecuador, 163 considered endangered and 159 found exclusively within this tiny nation.

Crimson-rumped Toucanet
The final level is the forest floor or shrub layer where little vegetation can survive the lack of sunshine. Organic material decomposes rapidly in this region providing nourishment for the sparse survivors. Giant Anteaters, large rodents, quaint foraging birds and mammals inhabit this uninviting environment.


When traveling to the tropical rainforest of Ecuador, arriving in the target country is the easiest part of the journey. From this point it must be decided how to reach the destination quickly and safely. Ecuador has an abundance of ground options that are both secure and reliable. The road system is modern and well maintained, thus facilitating travel alone or in small groups. For those who are less adventurous, the traveler may acquire the assistance of guides or tour agencies to insure one’s safety and expediency. Internet research should be utilized in advance of travel, scrutinizing the intended areas along with their ground transportation options and employing the most advantageous means of reaching the final destination.
Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

An additional item that requires thorough research before setting out on a trek to the tropical rainforest is lodging. While there are many lodges and reserves offering eco-packages, other options may be available, especially to the frugal traveler. Small towns located near or possibly within the boundaries of the forest could offer less expensive accommodation while affording access to these target areas. Some locations permit camping, providing a more intimate contact with the environment.


As was mentioned earlier, the tropical rainforest is home to eighty percent of the world’s animal population. It is therefore advisable to take precautions when entering this possibly hostile environment. A few preventative measures can help avoid uncomfortable or dangerous situations while ensuring a more enjoyable visit to these areas of unparalleled beauty.

  • Never Travel Alone – Although there is an inherent desire to be one with nature, it is never advisable to travel alone in areas where nature may wish to make the visitor too much a part of the environment. Even on small reserves where it appears safe, a habituĂ© is recommended to at least inform someone where they will be and when they will return. A slight misstep could result in a mishap with no one to provide assistance.
  • Insects – Due to the tropical environment of the rainforest, flying, crawling, and jumping creatures abound. Although many may be harmless, traveling in jungle areas below 1,500 m (5,000 ft) increases the possibility of encountering disease-bearing insects. An Internet search of the target areas will reveal any health risks that have been identified for the location and the precautionary measures that should be employed.
  • Animals – Many of the creatures roaming the dense foliage of the wilderness are beautiful and quite harmless. However, there are many animals that require cautious consideration. Certain beasts such as bears, monkeys and large cats are obviously menacing but the smaller inhabitants such as snakes, lizards and frogs can prove to be innocent looking yet formidable foes. Proper clothing and precautionary measures can prove to be an effective deterrent to aggressive jungle dwellers.


The tropical rainforest of Ecuador is a must-see destination for the avid adventurer. Its unprecedented beauty and diversity delivers an environmental experience that is incomprehensible without a firsthand encounter. It should be placed on the wish list of every traveler who wants to understand the true nature of the world and its hidden treasures.