There are varying reports about Ecuador's northwestern province of Esmeraldas and its coastal cities. Some sources warn visitors away from the port of Esmeraldas, citing dirty beaches, pollution, and a high crime rate while others recommend a gateway to its beaches and coastal resorts.
This province of Ecuador is covered in rainforests, tropical vegetation, mangrove trees, and several rivers, and the people who call Esmeraldas home share a vibrant culture that's a mixture of the native people's and that of the African slaves who had escaped captivity and established a home in the port city.
There's no "perfect time" for coastal Ecuador. From December to June, the north shore is hot and wet with tropical rainstorms, which may close local roads, and from June to September it's cloudy and humid while October to December is slightly drier and cooler. The best time for Esmeraldas city is in early August for the independence celebrations when day and night revelry includes the marimba bands whose music is based on ancestral African music and dance.
If you plan to travel to Esmeraldas, you'll likely arrive either by plane into Coronel Carlos Concha Torres International Airport or via cruise ships, which often dock in the port. Some of these cruise lines offer on-shore excursions to Cuenca, Chan Chan, or Quito, which is 116 miles (185 km) to the southeast, but many of the passengers prefer to spend the day sightseeing locally.
By air, there are daily TAME fights to and from Quito, and by land, you can either take the bus service connecting most coastal and inland cities or taxi services between Esmeraldas and Quito, which is fast and relatively inexpensive. Esmeraldas is a commercial port and a port-of-call for several cruise ships as well as several small boat and ferries that provide service between the coastal communities.
Beaches and Resort Towns
The most popular attractions of the province of Esmeraldas are its many beautiful beaches, coastal resorts, and private islands that offer an escape from the norm. However, warm water and cool sea breezes make for crowded beaches when the weather is hot and humid (which is most of the year). Among the most popular beach towns and fishing villages:
- Atacames: South of Esmeraldas, this town is wildly popular with beach bars, discos, waterfront hotels, and restaurants.
- Sua: A small fishing village with pretty beaches and a quieter atmosphere.
- Same: An upscale resort town just 12 miles from Esmeraldas that has clean white sand beaches, palm trees, a beautiful bay with a gentle surf, and the Casa Blanca beach resort, which offers a Jack Nicklaus golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, and a marina.
- Muisne: An island south of Same with secluded beaches, an off-the-grid feel, and a relaxed atmosphere.
- San Lorenzo: The largest town north of Esmeraldas, which is very popular for its bay and nautical events.
- San Vicente: A resort village with nice beaches.
There are a few places that you might not want to go because of the crime rate and high risk of malaria carried by mosquitos during the wet months. It's best to avoid the small villages of Borbón and Limones, also known as Valdéz, which are prone to both of these threats.
What to Do
Whether you're a fan of nature or you just want to lay out on a pristine, secluded beach, the province of Esmeraldas is home to some great outdoor activities, events, and destinations. Sports like hiking and ocean kayaking are popular year-round while bird watching has become a bit of a regional pastime over the years.
Manglares Mataje, Cayapas Ecological Reserve contains 55,000 hectares of untouched mangrove forests, uninhabited beaches, and abundant fauna, and offers excellent bird watching opportunities, as does the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve in the Chocó Rainforest.
In terms of events, the annual May Marimba festival in San Lorenzo offers three days filled with music and dancing to local musicians. In August, the Fiesta de San Lorenzo is devoted to salsa, which locals and orchestras from neighboring Colombia play late into the night.
Food, Drink, and Shopping Tips
Although the palm-like bush that provides the material for Panama hats, carludovica palmata, grows in the neighboring province of Manabí, you can pick up one of these hats in the marketplaces of Esmeraldas to help block the sun from your eyes while you explore local restaurants, bars, and beaches.
In terms of beverages, popular local favorites include aguardiente de caña (sugar cane liquor) and coco con aguardiente (coconut juice with liquor). However, seafood and tropical fruits are the staples of restaurants along the coast. Some great dishes you might enjoy include:
- Eencocado de pescado: Fish prepared with coconut juice
- Tapao: Wheat with fish and banana
- Arroz con menestra, camarón, y patacones: Rice with lentils, shrimp and pressed green fried banana
- Empanadas and bolones de verde: Balls made of green banana, that usually have some stuffing inside
- Cocada: A sweet dessert made of coconut, peanut, and brown sugar
A Brief History
Until a few decades ago, the area around Esmeraldas was accessible only by sea. The only inhabitants for centuries were native people of the Tumaco and La Tolita cultures that spread over the modern borders of Colombia and northern Ecuador. The province of the same name that surrounds Esmeraldas got its name because Spanish explorers had found the local Tumaco and La Tolita tribes bedecked with emeralds.
When slaves were being brought to the New World to work the growing sugar plantations, the mines, and other jobs, some of them escaped shipwrecks and swam ashore on the Esmeraldas coast. They overcame, first by violence, then by reproducing, the local cultures, and created the "Republic of Blacks" which became the haven for escaping slaves from other Ecuadorian provinces and South American viceroyalties and countries.
Isolated for so many years, the black and indigenous cultures interwove and created a culture that remains vibrant today. With the coming of roads, the development of the port, and the establishment of Esmeraldas as the site of Ecuador's largest oil refinery for the Trans-Ecuador pipeline bringing oil from the Amazon, the city of Esmeraldas has become a large commercial and tourism center. At the same time, ecologically concerned citizens have created wildlife reserves and mangrove conservation groups.