The Galápagos Islands are widely regarded as one of Latin America’s top scuba diving destinations, but I still wasn’t prepared for the incredible diversity of marine life I would discover there. Diving through enormous schools of hammerhead sharks and flocks of eagle rays made me fall in love with scuba all over again— it had been a long 4 year hiatus since my last dives in the Great Barrier Reef and around Thailand, and I’d almost forgotten just how incredible it feels to be under the water, swimming alongside animals most people will only ever see on the Internet.
And so, after a series of spectacular dives in the Galápagos, I just wasn’t ready to be done exploring Ecuador’s underwater world— I shuffled my mainland travel plans around to accommodate a single day of diving in Ayangue on the Pacific Coast. This tiny, under-the-radar town near Montañita is the launching point for dives out to Bajo Cope, said to be one of the best places in the entire world to dive with giant Manta Ray. I had just one wish for my last day in Ecuador, but I ended up enjoying the two best dives of my life in this off-the-tourist-track beach town, and left convinced that Ayangue may be Ecuador’s best-kept secret.
All the details: scuba diving with Manta Ray in Ayangue
Cost: Ray Aguila Dive Company runs boats out to Bajo Cope most days for $100 per person (dependent on the number of people), including 2 dives and good equipment. It’s a pretty bare-bones operator compared to those you’ll find in the Galápagos, but the price is great and the experience is unforgettable.
Getting there: Buses run quite regularly from Guayaquil to Ayangue (2.5hrs, $5USD), just be warned that you will probably hop off the bus on the side of the road and need to hail a taxi into town (or walk about 4km). It’s also possible to reach Ayangue from the nearby backpacker hotspot Montañita (40min)— there are buses running each day or you can even take a taxi the whole way for around $15USD.
Where to stay: I’d recommend staying 30min away in Montañita rather than in Ayangue, just because there are a lot more accomodation and food options here. Iguana Surfer’s Lodge ($6USD/night) has simple, clean dorm rooms and a seriously festive vibe, located very central to all the popular bars and restaurants in Montañita.
Top tips: Ayangue is known for having some of the best seafood in mainland Ecuador, so make sure to stop in at one of the local beachfront restaurants for fresh ceviche after your dive!
After catching a night bus from Baños and hopping immediately on another bus in Guayaquil, we arrive in Ayangue around 8am— or rather we are dropped with our luggage onto the side of the road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, left to make our own way into the tiny town.
I’ve travelled here with Cristian, an experienced dive instructor from the Galápagos who has dived here on several occasions, so we are on the beach tucking into a big plate of ceviche and trying on wetsuits before I even have time to wonder where to go.
On this cloudy Tuesday morning, there appear to be only a dozen people in the entire town, all of whom greet Cristian like a long-lost son. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place I’d visit on my own, and of course that’s a great deal of the charm— I feel like I’ve slipped in when no one was paying attention, a lone gringa glimpsing something typically reserved just for the locals.
Some of the curious smiles in my direction suggest that others are every bit as puzzled by my presence as I am by the empty beach, but everyone is warm and welcoming, and soon I forget to feel out of place and just start to feel excited.
After the usual rigmarole of kitting ourselves out in a wetsuit, booties, fins, mask, and BCD, we shuffle a short distance down the sand and take a little boat out to the big dive boat. Everything feels very casual compared to other dive trips I’ve been on, but soon I’m practically vibrating in anticipation of getting into the water.
The ride out to the dive site takes a little more than an hour and is entirely uneventful, the clouds still fully covering the sky and dashing any hopes of a sunny morning cruise. Even when we finally arrive at the site, a seemingly random spot in the middle of the grey Pacific Ocean, I find myself thinking “…is this it?”— a sentiment which does not last long. Unremarkable though it may be from the surface, this is actually a shallow spot in the ocean that attracts fast currents, the perfect cleaning station for Manta Ray.
Sitting on the edge of the boat getting into all my gear, I spot what looks like the dorsal fin of an enormous shark— the wing of a Manta Ray!!— our first indication that there’s something waiting for us below the surface and that I may just get everything I wanted out of my final day in Ecuador.
Ecuador is home to the world’s largest population of Oceanic Manta Ray, with thousands of 5-7 metre rays visiting the waters near Isla de la Plata and Bajo Cope each year, typically from July to October.
Despite their enormous size, Manta Ray are impossibly graceful creatures— swimming alongside these gentle giants is like flying, an experience at once entirely thrilling and deeply calming. But just like so many other incredible marine species, Manta Ray are threatened as a direct result of humans, their numbers dwindling due to habitat destruction, global warming, and irresponsible tourism practices around the world.
Experiences like scuba diving with Manta Ray in Ayangue remind us of why it’s so incredibly important to protect our oceans AND all the amazing marine wildlife within them.
Never support companies that bait Manta Ray or otherwise interfere with their natural environment (thankfully this doesn’t really happen in Ecuador), and also give the rays plenty of respect when you’re in the water by not touching them or shoving your camera too close to their face. This ensures both the safety of the Manta Ray AND that people will be able to experience the magic of swimming alongside them for generations to come
Our first dive features no fewer than 20 enormous 6-7 metre Manta Rays gently gliding over our heads or across our path. Each sighting is every bit as heart-stopping as the last, and I constantly have to remind myself to breathe calmly for fear of guzzling my entire tank of air and having to return to the surface early.
The Manta Rays are attracted to the bubbles from our regulators and approach closely to inspect us. Everything about them is beautiful, and I find myself totally transfixed by the slow and gentle flap of their wings, almost like enormous underwater butterflies.
Even as I fight the urge to hyperventilate from excitement, I also feel an intense calm watching their graceful, unhurried movements. When I do eventually have to ascend, it’s with a face-splitting grin and an immediate restlessness to get back in the water.
Thankfully, our dive bottomed out at 14m, so we only need a short surface interval before we can roll our wetsuits back on and gear up for another dive.
This second dive begins much the same as the first, with near-constant Manta Ray sightings, until one particular Manta takes a special interest. Instead of swimming around us and then flying off into the blue, she glides slowly with us, letting me swim directly above her or just below her, close enough to reach out and touch her patterned back (though, of course, I resist the urge).
I slowly float upside down beneath her, staring up at her white belly and trying to imitate the flapping of her wings through the water. We are flying together, and this is one of those moments I never want to forget, a feeling I wish I could bottle up and save forever. This is something beyond special. Surreal.
After 30 minutes with our Manta Ray, we eventually have to tear away and make a final ascent, buoyed by a lightness that only comes from experiencing something truly magical.
I immediately rip my mask down and spit my regulator out, swallowing enormous gulps of sea water as I try to recount every emotion I felt under the water in between hysterical giggling. In the end, there aren’t really words to describe what we experienced, but I find that I don’t really need them. I will never, ever forget this moment.