Exploring Ecuador: Hiking at La Puntilla de Santa Elena in Salinas, Ecuador

If you like walking around in the great outdoors, then Salinas has a great place for you to get your hike on.

The picture above shows the westernmost point of Ecuador (excluding the Galapagos), a national park called La Puntilla de Santa Elena. 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.

La Loberia, which has a viewing area for los lobos del mar, or sea wolves, that sun themselves on the rocks there. At the tip of the peninsula is La Chocolatera, and sitting atop a hill overlooking the whole Santa Elena peninsula is the mirador called El Morro. La Chocolatera has a snack bar, bathrooms, and a small area of souvenir vendors. El Morro also has a snack bar and bathrooms, and a small Visitor’s Center with displays about the park, local wildlife, and the history of the area.

Rita and I have been prepping for about nine months now for our hike on the Inca Trail coming up at the end of August, so we have made frequent use of this park to train. Let’s take a look at a hike we took this Sunday to give you an idea of what La Puntilla has to offer.

Sunday dawned bright and beautiful, with a nice breeze, so we decided hike to El Morro. This would give us a chance to not only practice hiking with a pack, but the climb up to the observation point would give us a chance to learn to use our hiking poles. We are also looking to maximize the miles, so we set out from our condo on the malecon, which is about a mile and a half from the entrance to La Puntilla. This gives us a hike of between 8 and 8.5 miles, round-trip.

If you are not so inclined, there are several options for getting to the park directly. First, in the Santa Elena peninsula there are several buses you can take to the entrance to the Army base. The numbers 7, 10, 11, 12, and 13 all turn around at the base or a block over. From the entrance, it is just over a quarter mile to the start of the bike paths.

Entrance to the Army portion of the base in Chipipe

It is also easy to get a cab to take you to any of the three areas. On weekends, there are usually cabs hanging around that will bring you back out. If not, most cabs will wait for you if you negotiate an hourly fee ($8-10), or even arrange to return in a few hours.

About entering the Army base – we have never been asked for ID of any type. We just wave and say “buenos dias”. If you are driving in, they will just ask you to obey the speed limit, and to turn on your flashers.

The first part of the hike is very easy. When you enter the base, you walk along a sidewalk until you get to a sign directing you to turn left, where the black pavement and bike path begin.

The bike paths allow excellent access to La Loberia and La Chocolatera

We walk

past an obstacle course and an old paintball site, and at about the two mile mark of our journey, we are at the main intersection. Left takes you to La Loberia, right to the other two sections of the park.

We turn left, away from our goal, to cut across a dirt road and pick up the brick walkway that connects La Loberia with La Chocolatera. It’s a little bit longer walk than using the bike paths, but it is much cooler and we think a more pleasant walk. We really enjoy the sound of the surf and the sea breeze.

Don’t worry about the buzzard.

Lizards scurry out of our way as we ease on down, ease on down the road. This is a really beautiful section, especially this year, since the unusually rainy wet season has caused an explosion of greenery. Part of the path is a boardwalk, with one section making a bridge and a covered viewing/hydration station.

Looking back to La Loberia from the boardwalk

From the boardwalk we can see our goal, but it still looks pretty distant.

El Morro, about a mile and a half of trail away and 270 feet up.

Let me say a word here about one of our favorite pieces of new hiking equipment – the hydration pack. This is a thick plastic bag that holds a couple of liters of water, and slips into a sleeve in the back of my pack. A plastic tube runs to the front of one of the shoulder straps, and is attached by a magnet. The tube ends in a bite valve, and it is very easy to drink from it and drop it back into place. No fumbling around trying to pull a bottle out of a sleeve, and you don’t have to worry about dropping the cap.

Back on the trail, as we near La Chocolatera, the brick goes to a dirt path, and we soon reach the turn off to head towards El Morro. We cross the road, and now it is time to break out my other favorite piece of new equipment – our hiking poles.

These are similar to ski poles, but are adjustable. They collapse down to a handy size for carrying on the pack, and can then be adjusted for use on the trail. You can make them slightly shorter to help with going uphill, and longer for going downhill. They are the shit! I could not believe how much easier it was to climb a steep path using the poles.

Rita working the hiking poles

Going up uneven and slanted steps, they are even better. You can plant them on the step above you, and use them to help pull yourself up. We are able to climb the stairs at El Morro, some of which area foot or more high, with out using the handrail – which is good, since the Inca Trail will not have handrails.

Some of the stairs at El Morro are a bit challenging.

Finally, we are at the top, and we are rewarded with the terrific views of the peninsula.

Looking east towards Chipipe and Salinas

Looking south. You can just make out part of the trail we were on the green meets the beach.

The view of La Chocolatera to the west.

After a break for an apple and to visit the baños, it was time to start the 4-mile walk back home. Once again, gotta love the hiking poles. Going down was also possible without using the handrails. They are great on a steep downhill path, as planting the poles ahead of you while you walk helps you keep your pace steady. You don’t get that slow acceleration that can build up until suddenly you can’t stop, and you’re running downhill hoping you don’t trip.

Just over an hour later, we were back home, ready to strip off soaking wet clothes (the temperature rose to about 88F while we were walking), and talking about where we would go on our next hike out to La Puntilla.

I encourage more Santa Elena area expats to get out and enjoy this mostly under-utilized park. It covers almost 500 acres of land, and park guide John Mosquesa tells me it also includes a protected area of the Pacific Ocean of 125,000 acres. The park gets between 20,000 – 25,000 visitors a month, many arriving on tour buses. Stop by and see for yourself. There’s no entry charge, and the park is open every day from dawn to dusk.

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