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Manteño culture is maintained with a shaman ceremony in the woods at Agua Blanca.Sarah Marshall/Handout

It is little wonder that the Ecuadorian coast near the city of Manta, the Tuna Capital of the World, has been tagged a mini Galapagos. The region’s wildlife and marine parks headline a must-see itinerary, made more meaningful by naturalists, traditional artisans, farmers and foodies, even village shamans, who keep Ecuador’s Incan and Spanish heritage alive.

Discovery of the area’s emerging reputation comes easily on a five-day Kontiki Expeditions yacht cruise. The 18-passenger MS Wayra launched with 15 crew members in March, 2022. Not to be confused with youth travel company Contiki Tours, Kontiki takes its name from Kon-Tiki Viracocha, the god of creation in Incan mythology. A hefty statue of him sits on the floor in the common area, a silent witness to passengers’ daily shenanigans and a brand icon. Viracocha’s legend of discovery and of walking west on the waters of the Pacific mirrors the cruise line’s mandate for coastal cultural exploration.

“This is not just a luxury cruise, this is an organized adventure that is focused on conservation, that is focused on community,” says expedition leader Raul (Ruly) Menoscal. He grew up on this coastline in Ayangue, a fishing village at the top of our itinerary, and with 30 years of experience as a naturalist guide and scuba expert in the Galapagos Islands, he’s the ideal narrator.

We arrive at the Wayra at night via Zodiac skiff, zipping past expensive-looking fishing boats, our luggage in tow. This lends embarkation an exotic overtone, and I can feel myself smiling in the dark, as if I’m in a foreign film and getting to the good part. Our shoes come off immediately – the yacht’s bare-feet policy is the only dress code, helping to protect the wooden floors – and we spill into the main lounge for a welcome briefing and our room assignments. The Wayra’s decor was created using locally made artisanal furnishings, blankets and ceramics – a beach-chic look that extends into our cabins, well suiting the tastes of the target audience.

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Blue-footed boobies nest among the dry vegetation of Isla de la Plata, part of Machalilla National Park.Doug Wallace/Handout

“When I’m guiding, when I’m leading people, I never talked about ‘tourists,’ because I’ve always thought that a tourist is somebody who sees the trip through a viewfinder – but that’s it,” Menoscal says. “I’d rather talk to our ‘visitors.’ Visitors are always welcome. Visitors are open to learning and willing to listen. These are the real travellers among us.”

Once in Ayangue, we make our way down the beach to Arte Orrala, a ceramics studio where our many hands make for light work of the pottery we craft, just as Pre-Incan Valdivian culture dictates: mixing the clay, smoothing it by hand, then rolling it out and shaping tiny pots. There’s no rush.

Another morning, we wander through the Indigenous community of Agua Blanca near Puerto Lopez, the villagers descended from the Manteno civilization. We skirt a natural sulfur pond and visit an ancient grave site, before taking part in a cleansing ceremony. Shaman Plinio Merchan guides us through a spiritual ritual of thanksgiving. We are smudged with smoke and lightly swatted with tree leaves dipped in water, while assistants blow conch shells.

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The stalls at the beach market at Puerto López sell sardines, anchovies and small tuna.Doug Wallace/Handout

Farther north, near the town of San Vicente in the province of Manabi, we meet chef Valentina Álvarez at Iche cooking school. Her students learn the art of ancestral culinary techniques and apply them to modern-day tastes. We tour an herb garden before crowding around a traditional, wood-fired outdoor oven where soups are simmering and empanadas are mastered. Fruit farmer Servio Pachard is also on hand. He is a renowned producer of To’ak chocolate, made from the rare Arriba Nacional cacao bean. We shuck and toast a few beans, grinding them into a paste.

The potters, the shaman, the chef and the chocolatier are no happy accident. They were all sourced to best represent the culture and traditions of the area. Besides bolstering the tourist economy in the area, Kontiki has aided in community projects, including the development of a soccer school for children in Manta in partnership with the Real Madrid Foundation, and the support of non-profit organization Mingas por el Mar, made up of more than 300 volunteers who organize beach cleanups on the Ecuadorian coast.

A hike in the seabird nesting grounds of protected Isla de la Plata yields dozens of blue-footed boobies going about their business, all oblivious to our interruption. Howler monkeys swing around above our heads on a hike through Pacoche Wildlife Refuge, noted for its towering bamboo and thick rubber trees. We spot a fuzzy tarantula, well-camouflaged among the fallen leaves. At marine reserve Islote El Pelado, we swim with massive sea lions – giving them a wide berth. A spotted eagle ray makes it onto our daily camera roll, along with big schools of colourful rainbow wrasses.

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Naturalist guide Raul 'Ruly' Menoscal has played a large part in the development of the Kontiki Expeditions itinerary.Doug Wallace/Handout

Later in the week, a smack of jellyfish ruins an afternoon snorkel, but the exploit gives us plenty to talk about, the stings wearing off our red faces after an hour or so. “This job is fantastic,” Menoscal says. “I get to turn people on to the beauty of nature, the greatness of nature here – and watch them really enjoy it.”

At the end of the day, the Wayra proves to be extremely good for kicking back with a margarita. Hot snacks appear out of nowhere, even though another amazing meal showcasing Ecuadorian specialties is only an hour away. The sexy top deck sports a long bar, ample loungers, a hot tub and an inflatable waterslide that sees quite a lot of my behind. Inflatable docks extend off the stern when we are at anchor, with paddleboards, tandem kayaks and Seabob diving scooters making up a mini aquatic club. A blow-up “pool” with a mesh bottom adds to the marine mix. “There’s plenty of opportunity to just be a tourist if you want to,” Menoscal laughs.

If You Go

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A Kontiki Expeditions yacht cruise off the coast of Ecuador.Kontiki Expeditions

Kontiki Expeditions cruises start at US$8,050 for eight day/seven night trips; the fare includes meals, drinks, WiFi, guided land and sea expeditions and port shuttle transport.

The writer was a guest of Kontiki Expeditions. It did not review or approve the story before publication.

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