Manta: Hidden in Plain Sight on the Ecuadorian Coast
The Ecuadorian coast is stepping into the limelight as a delightful new destination in the Americas. Manta, in the province of Manabí, takes center stage with good food, luxury lodging, abundant beaches, and activities that let you enjoy the sea even away from the shore. This vibrant, homey, and welcoming spot is ready for its moment in the sun.
By Alexa Carolina Chacón
Photos: Jesús Del Salto
Manta conjures up the taste of fresh tuna and the scent of sand and salt. Here you go to the sea —picture pleasure sailing— in search of life, but also to come face-to-face with life. The hundreds of boats and fishermen that materialize minutes after you leave the airport are ample proof of the sea’s central place. You’ll see fishermen come ashore at Playita Mía, right across from the Seafood Market, where they sell their products directly to consumers. Behind their boats looms a Panamax vessel in a port with world-class infrastructure. This small city is home to one of the world’s largest tuna-fishing ports.
The air takes on a briny, salty tang as you approach the market. As you might expect, you need to arrive pretty much at sunrise; in fact, there’s nothing left by 10:00 a.m. The dynamic energy that pulsates through stock markets or banking centers in other cities emanates here from the sea and Manta’s seafood, the age-old currency of a coast rich in crustaceans and fish. It’s gold for gourmets…and everyone, in fact. Enormous tunas and a boy prizing open black clams catch my eye when I arrive. The young man uses a huge knife to split the clam open without even looking as he chats with someone. He’s obviously been doing this for years.
A merchant immediately approaches to offer me the catch of the day. I cheerfully explain that I’m a journalist who just dropped in briefly for an article I’m writing on Manta. He smiles and asks me to take his photo. The rest of the seafaring men were equally amiable. They’re all rock stars with ready smiles who are proud to call Manabí home. That’s when I begin to understand this coastal city. These are people ready to shine, pose for photos, and take their turn in the limelight. We could say the same of Manta as a destination. It’s the understudy waiting for its chance at stardom. The five-star hotels, the restaurants some consider the best in Ecuador, and a deluxe menu of tourism offerings prove the city is ready for its moment. It reminds me of the time when Tulum was a one-street town, known only to truly savvy travelers. Today those people boast: “I visited Tulum before it became popular!” A gem waiting to be discovered, Manta will be accessible via direct Copa Airlines flights starting in June 2023.
Manta: The Home of Homestyle Cooking
When I started researching Manta, the first piece of advice I received was: “Bring an appetite.” You eat well all over Ecuador, but Manta’s Manabí province is recognized for fresh food served up with food culture and tradition. A traditional Manabí table setting offers dishes meant to be shared among the guests. Muya, a restaurant known for its family-style dining, is hoping to revive and strengthen this tradition. Cecilia Cedeño, the restaurant’s chef, exudes passion for her country and its venerable heritage when she speaks. Her aim is to make guests feel the warmth of a Manabí home in her restaurant. Seafood is the star of the menu, but it is ably supported by star-quality players like beef.
Equally impressive is the Hotel Poseidón’s restaurant, El Dorado, where I tasted the largest oysters I have ever seen; I certainly did them justice. When I asked if they were local, the answer proudly confirmed that they were “one hundred percent from Manta.” We were told that the best way to eat them is with Worcestershire sauce, chili, and a dash of pepper. Many people associate oysters with the refinement of Parisian cuisine, but they are an everyday pleasure here. This is local food. What luck to be a denizen of the coast.
Spiny oysters have long been considered nearly sacred in Ecuador. Manta and the province of Manabí are part of the Spondylus Route, which runs down the coast from north to south, and also includes the provinces of Esmeraldas and Santa Elena, other places that historically engaged in fishing and handicraft production. This route will take you to places that provide context for the spiny oyster, whose vibrant red color and white spines are an expression of the memory of Ecuador’s past. The Spondylus has always enjoyed a certain status in Andean nations; remains of oysters as offerings have been found at several archeological sites. It was once the region’s currency and treasure, gold from the sea…and it still is.
My culinary tour continued with a visit to the cozy Casa Rosada in the city center. This is the only colonial structure with an unaltered façade that is still standing. As the name indicates, the building glows pastel pink and it’s an ideal place to tuck into a traditional Manabí breakfast. Dinner is at Martinica, the best restaurant in the city, according to connoisseurs. Martinica hopes to make you feel special, so this is its only location. (They don’t take reservations.) The cuisine is on the fusion spectrum, and is entirely a reflection of the personality of chef Omar Rivadeneira, who conceptualized the restaurant around the idea of home-style coziness. Each successive dish reveals more of Omar’s personality, what he likes, and what he wants you to take away from Manta.
You arrive in Manta on the northern side of the city and exit the airport toward a coastal avenue that runs alongside the main city beaches, where you can glimpse the comings and goings on the sea. The market, the ports, the shipyards, and everything else quickly comes into view. This is a small, but busy city. The business district appears on your left, while the sea stretches to the horizon on the right. The city’s appearance changes as you go further south. The architecture reflects more tourism, and it’s evident that you’ve entered a hotel zone. A few minutes more, 15 to be exact, take you to the Poseidón. My first thought on looking up was that the building was intended to suggest a boat. The impression was confirmed by a simple query. The hotel is designed as a sort of landbound cruise ship, where the sea view rooms give guests the feeling of being at sea. In addition to the splendid view and the El Dorado restaurant, Poseidón is popular in Manta for its swimming pool and the Mojitos beach bar.
The reach of tourist services in Manta encompasses the sea. The M/Y Kontiki Wayra is one of those hidden gems of luxury tourism that you might expect to find only in the Mediterranean. The 18-passenger, 131-foot yacht carries all the ocean-going toys you will ever need. There are nine deluxe cabins, a jacuzzi, and a spa. Watching from the deck of the Kontiki as the Manta summer sunset paints the sky in orange and red is such a special sensory experience that it stuns us all into silence. We let the sea breeze do the talking. A stay on the yacht and taking part in its excursions will give you a different perspective on the city as you see it from the outside in rather than the inside out.
The Eolia, a recently opened member of the Design Hotels family, provides an eco-luxury experience. Located 25 minutes from the international airport and 10 minutes from the city, Eolia welcomes us to Santa Marianita beach. In Ecuador, this is one of the areas best known for its winds, making it one of the most popular places to kitesurf. Designed with environmentally sustainable principles and featuring educational programs for the surrounding community, the tasteful design and fiercely-guarded privacy radiate a distinct coastal California vibe. In addition to rooms and suites, bungalows with a private pool are available. Both Eolia and Kontiki are ideal for a romantic getaway or a honeymoon.
From Sea to Forest
The best way to see Manta is with the help of a tour operator. Hola Aventura provides everything you need. The most distinctive tour is the Beach Route, which offers the adrenaline rush of handling 4-wheel drive vehicles. The only thing you need to get behind the wheel is a valid driver’s license. We visited the San Mateo and La Tiñosa beaches, but other sites can be included if time permits. Manta beaches are long, with strong waves. Their beachfront bars and restaurants cater to all tastes. If you’re looking for a more intense ocean adventure, the company also offers catamaran excursions. They’re great for groups, partying, jet skiing, and enjoying other ocean-going pursuits.
Just 20 minutes from Manta, nature and hiking take center stage in the Pacoche forest on one of the many tours organized by Hola Aventura. This semi-arid tropical forest is a green expanse surrounded by the desert landscape typical of the province of Manabí. This microclimate provides a habitat for howler monkeys and more than 250 species of birds. Centennial trees arch overhead and the sounds of the jungle will transport you far from the rumble of the waves. The contrasting habitats of forest and sea appropriately represent a city that offers contrasts everywhere you look. The city is ready for a starring role.