This park is one of the country’s first protected areas. Its early declaration in 1979 reveals that even at the beginning of Ecuador’s National System of Protected Areas, the importance of the area and the urgency to protect its ecosystems – the dry and semi-dry forests and the marine-coastal environments of southern Manabí – were recognized. Its name comes from the Machalilla culture, one of the most important pre-Hispanic cultures in the coastal region, which inhabited this area for 800 years (1800 BC – 1000 BC). Inside the park and in the surrounding areas, there are archaeological sites from various cultures, from Valdivia more than 5,000 years ago to the Manteño-Huancavilca culture 500 years ago. It is a park full of evidence of the ancient inhabitants of Manabí. The protected area includes beaches, several islets close to the coast such as Salango, Horno de Pan, Sucre, Pedernales, and El Sombrerito, as well as the famous Isla de la Plata.
The land area of the park comprises the territories of five watersheds: those of the Cantagallo, Jipijapa, Salaite, Buena Vista, and Ayampe rivers. The most important watersheds in terms of size are Ayampe and Buena Vista, as they together represent almost two-thirds of the protected area’s surface. Several populated centers are found in that area: Puerto Cayo, Machalilla, Puerto López, and Salango. Unlike other areas of the coast, the topography of the Machalilla coastal strip is very irregular and includes several places with high cliffs of erodible walls, rocky beaches where small intertidal pools abound, in which various marine organisms can be appreciated, as well as flat areas, sandy beaches, and valleys that have direct communication with the Pacific.
The marine area features bays and coves, generally with calm waters, and a continental shelf from which emerge the islands and islets that characterize this protected area. The evidence and archaeological sites found in the area indicate that several pre-Hispanic cultures occupied this territory more than 7 or 8 thousand years ago. The valleys near the coastline were occupied by the first farmers and hunters who later populated much of the continent. However, the most important cultural reference of this park and the south of the province of Manabí is related to the Manteño-Huancavilca culture (1500 BC – 500 AD). Its inhabitants had several settlements in the region and from this area they controlled and administered much of the pre-Hispanic trade and exchange that existed between the north and south of the continent.
In addition, they developed the art of sailing navigation, used large rafts, and became important merchants of that time. The stone chairs or thrones, characteristic of this culture, seem to be an indicator of their power and importance, and to date, remnants have been found in what are believed to be their civic-ceremonial centers in the central-southern region of Manabí, specifically in the Hojas and Jaboncillo hills, Agua Blanca, and López Viejo.
Currently, there are 12 communities within the park whose inhabitants are mainly dedicated to agriculture. The park protects a large strip that extends from the summits of the Chonchón-Colonche coastal range to the marine environments surrounding Isla de la Plata.
In all of these landscapes, there is a great diversity of flora and fauna. In the garúa forest, trees such as amarillo, palo de ajo, fernán sánchez, tillo blanco, tagua or cade, and paja toquilla grow, along with a large number of orchids and bromeliads. Among the birds, you can observe montane guans, toucans, tanagers, woodpeckers, and woodcreepers.
The greater green macaw is an emblematic bird of the region. Among the mammals, there are ocelots, jaguars, collared peccaries, white-tailed deer, howler monkeys, and capuchin monkeys. In the lower areas of the mountain range, there are dry and semi-dry forests. Here, vegetation is adapted to the scarcity of water; proof of this situation is the presence of cacti, palosantos, muyuyos, guayacanes, as well as the beautiful ceibos.
Among the birds that frequent these spaces are the motmot, parakeet or viviña, the shaman bird, the ovenbird – which builds mud nests on tree branches – and the laughing falcon or Valdivian hawk. Among the mammals that live in these forests are deer, armadillos, anteaters, and fruit bats. Near the beaches, there are shrubs with salt bush and realito or rompeolla. The four species of sea turtles recorded in Ecuador nest on the park’s beaches: hawksbill, green, olive ridley, and leatherback.
In the underwater environments, rocky reefs and coral communities stand out, especially around Isla de la Plata. There are lobsters, sea cucumbers, snails like the two pututos and the spondylus or spiny oyster. 143 species of fish have been reported, including sierra, grouper, white huayaipe, feather duster, several species of shark (including the whale shark), and the striking butterflyfish and parrotfish.
A characteristic species of these waters is the giant manta ray, a fish related to sharks that can reach a size of eight meters. Due to the richness of the marine area, the park was declared a “wetland of international importance” by the Ramsar International Convention.
Isla de la Plata, one of the most visited sites in the park, offers refuge and nesting sites for several seabirds. Among the most frequent and easy to observe are masked boobies, blue-footed boobies, frigates, tropical birds, small petrels, and terns, which usually flutter near the beaches and rocks.