The highway ends its course 5km west of La Libertad and 170km from Guayaquil at SALINAS, Ecuador's swankiest beach resort. Arriving at its graceful seafront avenue, the Malecón, feels like stepping into another world: gone are the ramshackle streets characteristic of Ecuador's coastal towns, replaced by a gleaming boulevard lined with glitzy, high-rise condominiums sweeping around a large, beautiful bay. Closer inspection reveals that the streets behind the Malecón are as dusty and potholed as anywhere else, but this doesn't seem to bother anyone – it's the beach that counts here, with clean, powdery sand and warm, calm waters that are safe for swimming. The best time to enjoy it is December, early January or March during weekdays. Around Carnaval it gets unbearably packed, along with summer weekends, while from April to November it can be overcast and dreary.
If you tire of the beach, check out the Museo Salinas Siglo XXI, on the Malecón and Calle Guayas y Quil (Wed– Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm; $2), a well-presented museum divided into two parts: an excellent overview of pre-Columbian cultures on the peninsula, including some beautifully crafted Guayala and Manteño-Huancavilca ceramics; and a section on nautical history displaying a reconstructed balsa raft and original anchor, as well as armaments, naval cannons and anti-aircraft guns. Also on view are items recovered from the galleon La Capitana, which hit a submerged reef and sank off the coast near Punta Chanduy in 1654, taking down with it more than two thousand silver bars and two hundred chests of coins. The small but captivating, backyard Museo de Ballenas (daily 10am–5pm, or when Oystercatcher restaurant is open; ring bell for attention or call Tel:04/2778329; Web: www.femm.org ; donations welcome), a few blocks away behind the Barceló hotel on Gallo between Calles 47 and 50, features a 12-metre skeleton of a humpback whale, skulls and bones of other cetaceans, and preserved dolphins, all of which were originally found washed ashore. At the other end of town behind Cevichelandia on Peña Villao is Aqua Adventure, a large swimming complex with waterslides.
At the western end of the Malecón near the Yacht Club, the handicraft market (daily Jan– March) sells jewellery, leather goods, tagua-nut carvings and sometimes Panama hats, while a taxi ride away, the rocky headland of La Chocolatera, the westernmost part of mainland Ecuador, is battered by powerful waves that churn the waters chocolate brown at high tide. Note, however, that it also sits within the perimeter of a naval base, where, at the entrance 2.5km from the shore, you'll have to ask permission and show your passport. Still within the base to the south is Punta Brava, where there's a colony of sea lions, one of the northernmost on the continent. Beyond is the Mar Bravo, like La Chocolatera, a good spot for surfing, but considered too dangerous for bathing.
Deep-sea sports fishing is very popular around Salinas, and can be arranged through the very efficient Pesca Tours, on the Malecón and Rumiñahui (Tel:04/2772391, Web: www.pescatours.com.ec ), who charge $350 for up to six people in low season; the best time of year is between November and February, but you can fish the year through. For local bird watching, there is no one more knowledgeable than Dutch ornithologist Ben Haase (Tel:04/2778329, email@example.com), at the Museo de Ballenas and Oystercatcher restaurant, who leads tours to the Ecuasal salt pans south of town ($30), one of the best places in the country to see the Chilean flamingo as well as more than 115 other species, including many migratory birds, Franklin's gulls, masked water-tyrants and peregrine falcons. Both Pesca Tours and Mr Haase offer whale-watching trips in season between June and September.