Ecuador's top two destinations for cruising boats are Bahia de Caraquez along the coast toward the Colombian border; and Puerto Lucia, the marina nestled between the towns of La Libertad and Salinas and just east of Punta Santa Elena, South America's westernmost point. Find the Galapagos Islands on a map and draw a line due east toward the Ecuadorean mainland and look for a pointy pice of land sticking out to the west: that's about where Punta Santa Elena and Puerto Lucia are.
We have not (yet) visited Bahia de Caraquez so I can only report that the folks we've met who have been there have said they've generally enjoyed it, and felt their boats were safe enough at anchor or on a mooring (Bahia's only two options for now) to travel away from them for weeks at a time. They say there's a fellow in Bahia you can hire to watch your boat, and they've said their boats have all been fine upon their return. We hear the official Ecuadorean entry/exit paperwork in Bahia is totally do-it-yourself; I don't know what the fees are but they're undoubtedly much cheaper than using an agent like we were required to do when we entered at Puerto Lucia. It seems that more cruisers who sail to Ecuador stop at Bahia rather than Puerto Lucia - I'm guessing because it's cheaper. So, why then did we choose to travel 120 miles further southand west, and pay larger coin, to stay for 5-1/2 months at Puerto Lucia?
Because we intended to do a lot of inland travel and wanted a secure place to leave our boat, plus quick and easy access to long-range transportation. Puerto Lucia has all that: it's a gated resort/marina with 24/7 security and lots of amenities; plus, it's only a 2-1/2 hour, first-class, $3.50 bus ride from La Libertad to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city. Guayaquil's an excellent bus and airport hub for getting to the rest of Ecuador, South America and beyond. Buses leave La Libertad for Guayaquil every 8 minutes during the day, and there are many taxi/charter van options if for whatever reason you can't take a bus. Puerto Lucia also boasts Ecuador's only boat yard so if something goes kerflooey on your boat between Panama and the Galapagos, you'll be putting in here whether you want to or not.
Following are other pluses and minuses of having a boat at Puerto Lucia. First, the minuses:
2. It's more expensive staying in any marina than keeping your boat at anchor. Puerto Lucia is no exception.
3. You need an agent to check in to Puerto Lucia. We used Roque Proaño (firstname.lastname@example.org ) & the cost for the 2 of us plus the 40-foot boat was about $400. There's a LOT of paperwork in Ecuador (about an inch's worth, copied 5 times) & Roque - who speaks basic English but would be grateful if you spoke a little Spanish - took care of it all. He even handled getting us a brief extension to our visas, did it very quickly, and with no additional cost, and handled almost all of it via email with us. So we're happy with how that's worked out.
4. You have to med-moor at Marina Puerto Lucia (see the pic above) and some folks find that intimidating. The marina staff makes it easy, though - they keep a lot of space between boats, and they use linesmen on shore as well as linesmen in a panga to guide you in and even wrestle your boat if necessary. But, bring lots of long mooring lines to keep you and your boat more comfortable once your stern's tied up to the dock and/or wall.
5. The water is....nutrient-rich here. Marine life grows fast on hulls and lines in the water. Some folks complain about a lot of oiliness on the water, either from the commercial fleets anchored nearby, or from local, shallow natural gas deposits that normally bubble up through the sea floor. That pic on the right is one of the bubblin' spots in the marina - and every time I go past it I hear in my mind the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies." Whichever the sourceof the oiliness, when we hauled our boat after 5 full months in the water here, the accumulated slime on the hull appeared little different from anything else we've encountered in Mexico and Central America. It washed off easily, but be prepared for some scrubbin' if you come here.
6. Perhaps the biggest minus at Marina Puerto Lucia is that there's a pretty wicked surge. You need lots of long mooring lines and should be eternally vigilant for chafe. We lived aboard and had The Fox in the water from June 9 to Nov. 1 when we hauled out. We were periodically away from the boat during this period but it seemed to us that the surge did not get uncomfortable until about mid-September - I'm guessing because of seasonal changes offshore. That said, many folks choose to haul out within days of their arrival to avoid the surge. Because we plan to return here next year for more extended travel; and, knowing what we know now i.e., we plan to be off the boat anyway, we will likely haul The Fox sooner rather than later. The Puerto Lucia boat yard is secure and the coastal weather here is consistently mild, so we don't expect many ill effects given what we've observed with other boats here.
Now, for the pluses:
1. We're very happy with the marina itself. Your liveaboard fee ($5/day charged only for the days you are physically present in the marina) gives you access to the onshore showers, a very well-equipped gym, tennis courts, swimming pools, and restaurant.
2. The resort's concierge will arrange laundry service for you, call a taxi if need be, etc.
3. Both in the marina and in the yard, the monthly rates decrease the longer your boat is there.
4. During the periods we were away from the boat, the marina staff always checked our mooring lines, etc. We had no problems with the boat during any of our absences and the marina office was responsive when we emailed them with questions about the boat's condition. We got a lot of peace of mind knowing that all was well.
5. The boat yard is good for more than the usual bottom painting and topside polishing. There's a 50-ton TraveLift and Andres, who operates both the TraveLift and the yard's crane, is very experienced and will take good care of your boat. The commercial fishing boats use Andres and his crane to load ice into their holds at the fuel dock; you can use Andres's crane to unstep your mast. You can arrange through the boat yard to get your anchor chain re-galvanized, or sails repaired - there are services in Guayaquil for such work that can come to your boat. Narciso, a finish-carpenter who works through the boat yard, does highly professional, furniture-grade interior woodwork - for very reasonable fees, we hear. We've seen 2 different boats who hired Narciso for adding lockers, shelving and paneling to their boats, and the results were so good on each boat you can't tell what's original and what's Narciso's. Needless to say the 2 boats' owners are very happy and say they'd recommend Narciso to anyone. Personally, I think Narcisco should start signing his work.
6. The towns of La Libertad and Salinas are easy to get around and supplies and provisioning are accessible most everywhere. La Libertad has an American-style mall with 4 ATMs, a sooper mart, etc. within a 10 minute walk of the marina. Downtown La Libertad has the best fish market we've seen since Ensenada, Mexico; and it's co-located with a traditional open-air market where GB and I can get a week's worth of food - fresh meat included - for less than $40. Also within 10 minutes' walk of the marina are a couple of hotels and small restaurants; the best is Hotel Valdivia, owned and operated by an expat couple from France. Their restaurant is run by the most excellent Chef Avel. Try anything on the menu and you'll be happy, but start with Avel's French fries is all I'm sayin'.
Because the work that's being done on The Fox precludes living aboard, we're staying at Hotel Valdivia for the duration. It's clean, spacious, comfortable, with large pool and xeriscaped gardens, breakfast included - all for $55/night including Ecuador's 12% tax. Taxis cost a buck to get anywhere in La Libertad, $2 to go to Salinas where there are even more hotels and restaurants, a pretty malecon, a second sooper mart -- the usual, for a fancy beach/resort town.
7. Guayaquil is very accessible from Puerto Lucia - and once you're in Guayaquil, it's crazy-easy to get anywhere else in Ecuador and beyond. Guayaquil's airport is about 5 minutes away from their big, modern, 3-tiered bus station, so however you decide to travel, it's easier connecting in Guayaquil. We've done both planes and buses, and we've used Guayaquil as our hub to get to Cuenca to the south, Quito to the north, and to Miami in the US.
8. La Libertad/Salinas is along the Ruta del Sol, a coastal highway that runs through a succession of beach towns and surfing destinations. Among these towns - a short day trip by rental car or bus from Puerto Lucia - is the pre-Inca archaeological site of Valdivia. I'll address Valdivia later, but for now I'll just say if several-thousand-year-old South American antiquities are your thing, you must visit Valdivia.
For us and The Fox, the pluses of Puerto Lucia outweigh the minuses by far. We've enjoyed our stay here so much we're going to return here next year, in June 2011, to pick up where we left off, and see even more of Ecuador and South America. Ecuador: what a country!