Puerto Lopez sits at the centre of Machalilla, Ecuador’s only coastal national park, in a wide bay surrounded by green hills crowned with candelabra cacti. This is the best base to explore nearby Los Frailes, arguably Ecuador’s most beautiful beach. Another popular excursion is Isla de la Plata, known as the “poor man’s Galapagos” for its blue-footed boobies and other birdlife. From June to September, the region hosts scores of humpback whales and boat trips to watch them are a must. The best-known accommodation in town is Hosteria Mandala, which has cabins set among dense, tropical gardens. The German and Italian owners have painstakingly decorated each cabin with unique designs. There’s also a good restaurant serving homemade bread and ice-cream plus a music room and library upstairs.