Introduction to Esmeraldas

In the northwestern corner of Ecuador, cultures with roots spanning the globe come together amidst jungle, river, and sea. This intriguing nexus of peoples and ecosystems is the essence of the province of Esmeraldas, and its primary allure for the visitor.

European feet first touched Ecuadorian soil here, when the Spanish landed on the Pacific coast in 1526. The conquistadors were astounded to find Indians bedecked in emeralds awaiting them on shore. Convinced that the region was abundant in the brilliant gems, they named it Esmeraldas.

While today’s Esmeraldas harbors few emeralds, it does live up to its other name, the “Green Province.” The northernmost of the coastal provinces, Esmeraldas is also the lushest, riddled with estuaries, mangroves, and flooded tropical forest. Its wild and remote inland areas, accessible only by canoe, make Esmeraldas the ideal staging ground for an epic river safari.

Fishing boats cruising along the Esmeraldas coastline.

If you’re not feeling up to an Indiana Jones impersonation and would rather vegetate than hack through vegetation, Esmeraldas also boasts some of the coast’s most stunning beaches, most bordered by small settlements subsisting on the sea’s harvest. The catch of the day, however, is increasingly bound for a tourist’s plate at one of the province’s oceanfront resorts, which range from party-towns bringing in swarms of vacationers to tranquil elite hideaways.

Wherever you stay, your tummy will thank you: scrumptious seafood is served on the tables of both the tiny fishing villages and the luxury condos.

Esmeraldas’ greatest attraction, however, is the openness and joie d’vive of its people. The majority are Afro-Ecuadorians, whose ancestors arrived in Esmeraldas in the 1600′s via wrecked slave ships or escape from Colombian sugar plantations. The isolation of Esmeraldas (roads did not reach the north coast until almost 30 years ago) has helped these people retain their African roots, vibrantly evident in the hypnotic drumbeats and sensual dance steps of the marimba.

Newcomers over the past 100 years have made Esmeraldas the most ethnically diverse province in Ecuador.

The Northern Rainforests

Enjoying a day at the beach.

In northern Esmeraldas, the roads fade to gravel and then dust before finally petering out, their progress halted by a labyrinth of vegetation and water. Entry into this fabled wilderness requires a canoe and true grit – the kind exhibited by the first non-indigenous settlers of the area, African slaves who staged bold escapes through dense jungle from Colombian plantations, and later formed renegade militias to fight the Spanish. The descendants of those rebel slaves, together with the Chachi Indians, cling tenaciously to the few human outposts in the region, their lives oriented to the flux of nature.

Due to its inaccessibility, the intricate natural beauty of the northern coastal jungle has eluded most visitors to Ecuador. Here the hardy adventurer can enjoy the tranquil pleasure of drifting through web like mangroves, in silence so complete you can almost hear the shrimp chattering under your canoe. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate the rich biodiversity of the region – including a number of endemic bird species – which can be explored at the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve and the Bilsa Biological Reserve, or through Savage Tours, a conservation-oriented travel agency specializing in organized explorations of Esmeraldas’ jungle “outback”.

Río Verde to San Lorenzo

As you follow the coastal road north from the city of Esmeraldas and cross the Esmeraldas river, cattle ranches and farmland are soon replaced by thick forests and deserted coastline. Small fishing villages dot the road, most with attractive beaches and few tourists. The two largest towns are Rio Verde and Rocafuerte; the former has a good hotel.

At the road’s end, civilization ceases and the Mataje-Cayapas Ecological Reserve begins. The reserve harbors 55,000 hectares of untouched mangrove forests, uninhabited beaches, and abundant fauna, and offers excellent bird watching opportunities.

Mataje-Cayapas receives few tourists, but it does host several foreign assistance and investigation projects that bring in researchers from all over the world. The Japanese technical mission for world mangrove reforestation has determined that the mangroves of the Majagual Forest, contained within the reserve, are the tallest in the world (some over 64 meters). Nearby Olmedo also boasts exceptional mangroves growing right on the beach, as well as lovely coconut forests.

The reserve stretches north to the Colombian border from the river towns of La Tola and Limones, both of which have basic cheap accommodations. Limones features the beach forests of Canchimalero and the Canal de Santa Rosa, which provide outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities, including enormous bird colonies and rare mammals such as the miniature tree sloth (Cyclopes didactylus).

San Lorenzo, the largest town north of Esmeraldas, offers many excellent “mom and pop” restaurants and the area’s best hotels – but remember accommodations are still quite basic. For a truly savory coastal meal, stop by Conchita’s and ask the duena to dish you up a plate of camarones (shrimp) or seco de pollo (stewed chicken) in her out-of-this-world sauce. The Ballena Azul, on the main road to the dock, features the town’s best breakfasts and fast and friendly service.

San Lorenzo’s Marimba festival, held every May, draws thousands of visitors for three joyous days of Marimba music and dancing. The August Fiestas of San Lorenzo, during which orchestras from Colombia play Salsa well into the next day, also bring scores of revelers into this normally sleepy backwater town.

Across the street from Conchita’s restaurant is the town’s barely-standing but well-used cultural center, where a youth ensemble puts on nightly performances of marimba music and dancing. These performances are actually practices for the bigger events of May and August, but the charming kids appreciate an audience (and a donation) anytime. Be ready to join in when a youngster takes your hand!

The jungle surrounding nearby towns such as Ricuarte and La Boca contains jade-hued, crystal clear rivers beckoning you to take a dip. The forestry reserve of La Chiquita is also a must see for lovers of tropical lowland forest. If the seductive beauty of these parts incites wanderlust, you can hire Manuel, a local boatman, to take you on an upriver exploration, or on an island-hopping adventure through the area’s mangroves and estuaries. Born and raised in San Lorenzo, Manuel is kind, articulate, and an excellent source of local cultural, political, and environmental information. Contact him through the Ballena Azul restaurant.

In the earlier days, many visitors would get to San Lorenzo by means of the train that departed from the Andean city of Ibarra. Over the course of several years however, this means of transportation slowly fell out of use and eventually stopped working. Things have changed in recent years though. The tracks have now been rehabilitated and the trains are once again running the circuit, making spectacular journeys that connect Ibarra in the sierra all the way to San Lorenzo on the Ecuadorian coast.

Daily buses with the Espejo and Valle de Chota lines leave San Lorenzo for Ibarra, Esmeraldas (only one bus per day leaving in the morning), and Borbon, crossing the Santiago river. Boats leave hourly to Limones (1 hour) and La Tola (2 1/2 hours) and daily to Palma Real and Tumaco, across the border in Colombia. Inquire about departure times at the docks or in hotels.

The Cayapas River

Traveling up the Cayapas river is like entering the fantastical world of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Nowhere else in Ecuador does the real blend into the magical so seamlessly as it does in this isolated area enveloped by tropical wilderness.

Originally inhabited only by the Chachi (Cayapas) Indians, the Cayapas river region is now a living tapestry of ancient indigenous and ancestral Afro-Ecuadorian communities intertwined in a harmonious and dynamic manner. Both cultures keep alive a rich heritage and folklore that is beautifully expressed in Marimba music and dancing and arullo singing, styles originating in Africa.

Zapallo Grande is an important Chachi community where the visitor can take in impressive examples of indigenous architecture and textiles. It has a comfortable lodge run by the community.

San Miguel is the last town on the river with any lodgings aside from camping. It offers a well run community hotel, as well as trained local guides who can take visitors farther upriver into the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve (ask for Jefferson or Alberto). The tropical forests of the Choco Bioregion within the reserve are some of the most stunning and best preserved in Ecuador, containing spectacular waterfalls, towering trees, immense river gorges, and abundant plant and animal life.

The Santiago River

Even less traveled than the Cayapas is the Santiago river, home to centuries-old Afro-Ecuadorian communities such as Concepcion and Selva Alegre. Farthest upriver is the community of Playa del Oro, which has a pleasant eco lodge and a community run ecotourism program that visits the Choco Bioregion. Bring a raincoat for the river travel, as there are many rapids and the going gets a bit wet.

All river travel up the Cayapas and Santiago rivers begins in the town of Borbon. At the docks canoes can be rented for an excursion or “flete”, and there is regular passenger service up both rivers daily. The green canoe to San Miguel leaves every day at 11:00 am and is motored by a local named Franco; just look for his green canoe. You may want to buy food in Borbon to cook upriver, because once you’ve left town prices are high and supplies scarce.

Beaches

Beaches in Esmeraldas run the gamut from gloriously empty stretches that tickle your feet with unmarked sand to raucous strips carpeted with discos, volleyball nets, banana boats, and gleaming bods.

While the mangrove-rimmed crescents of the northern jungle epitomize the former category, Atacames, Ecuador’s epicenter of seaside celebration, tops the latter. Half an hour south of the city of Esmeraldas, unpretentious Atacames is abuzz with all manner of youthful frolic year-round. Twenty-four hour thatched-roof bars right on the sand serve up sinful tropical fruit drinks to the pounding of reggae and salsa beats, which compete in energetic cacophony with those emitted from the nearby discos. Ecuadorians and foreigners alike stroll along the jumbled oceanfront row of hotels and restaurants, checking out the scene.

Everyone and everything in Atacames is permeated with a let-loose, summer vacation air. Unfortunately, the prices are accordingly inflated, and even the most spartan room will put you back at least $10 USD (if that still sounds like a steal you can indulge in one of the area’s hot water and pool-equipped hotels). Also keep in mind that the lively atmosphere includes a strata of shady characters who don’t mean you well (see traveler’s tips for Esmeraldas).

Tucked away and hidden to the south of Atacames, some fourteen kilometers from the nearest village, lies ecolodge Playa Escondida A departure from the often wild party life of Atacames, this ecological reserve of 100 hectares that boasts a safe, private, pristine beach offers a relaxing alternative for families and travelers.

If you prefer to see dawn after a decent night’s sleep, head six kilometers south to Sua, a fishing town around the point from Atacames with a quiet, pretty beach and basic accommodations. Those with first world needs and budgets should keep going another six kilometers to same, the elite resort of Esmeraldas. Same’s sparkling sands are bordered by swaying palms, Mediterranean style luxury condominiums (some available for weekly rental), and stylish hotels. Hot water, swimming pools, and gourmet food are standard at Same, as are Ecuadorians with Mercedes and Rolexes. For those with only a bus ticket and backpack, there are a few USD 20 a night cabins squeezed in among the gold card-required establishments.

One hour south of Same, the coastal road disappears into water across from Muisne, a small island marking the border between Esmeraldas and Manabi provinces. With its funky, lost paradise feel and long stretches of sunset-perfect beaches, Muisne suits its end-of-the-road locale and makes a good destination for those who want to “get away from it all”. Barefooted locals pedal the few tourists across the island in rickety bicycle taxis, from the tiny town where the ferries dock to the small selection of oceanfront hotels offering basic budget-level accommodations.

Most of your time in Muisne will likely be spent lounging in a seaside hammock while digesting the island’s abundant and cheap culinary specialty, “encocados”: seafood dishes cooked in a tasty coconut sauce. In between meals, motorboat excursions can be made from Muisne to neighboring beaches. Mompiche has an especially attractive beach and new eco-friendly, luxurious cabins. Tongorachi is rarely visited and maintains its interesting local character.

Travel further south from Muisne into Manabi province requires an adventurous half day journey via boat and pickup truck (driving along the sand) to the town of Pedernales, where the coastal road and regular bus service begins again.

The City of Esmeraldas

The busy port city of Esmeraldas (pop. 300,000), capital of the province, forms a distinct contrast to the laid back beach towns only minutes away. Bustling commerce spills haphazardly through the grimy streets and the rather dismal concrete buildings. Most visitors opt to stay at nearby beach areas and come into the city as needs dictate. The best nightclubs, bars and restaurants are in the Las Palmas neighborhood, as well as the city’s choice – and pricey – hotels.

By far the most exciting time to visit Esmeraldas is during the first five days of August, when the city shuts down its normal activities and transforms into one giant party celebrating its independence. During the day parades of everything from cowboys to high school bands to military platoons enliven the streets before a throng of onlookers, while at night dozens of block parties erupt with frenetic revelry. Don’t miss the marimba performance in the stadium – a rare opportunity to see this stunning music and dance form revived by those whose ancestors brought it from Africa. You will likely be the only gringo in town, and while seeing something few tourists (or Ecuadorians, for that matter) have seen before is quite a thrill, keep in mind that you will stand out (see traveler’s tips for Esmeraldas).

Travel Tips

Keep in mind that Esmeraldas is generally safe for tourists; so many local people have come to depend on tourism for their livelihoods that there is growing community concern for visitors’ welfare. If you ask questions, most people will give you correct information and advise you on how to reach your destination. If you are concerned about buses and taxis, many hotels in Esmeraldas have syndicates that can arrange for dependable, inexpensive transportation. Also, most rural communities have reliable local guides that can be hired for excursions.

That said, wherever you go in this world, there are people who do not mean you well, and frequently in areas with high levels of poverty this situation worsens. Remaining safe means being aware and cautions and observing standard practices such as not being on the streets or beaches alone at night and keeping an eye on your belongings at all times.

Transportation

TAME Airlines offers daily flights to Esmeraldas from Quito (check for flight times with their Quito office at Amazonas y Colón, 02-2509382/2509388). The taxi fare from the Esmeraldas airport to Atacames is about USD 20.

Transportes Esmeraldas and Transportes Occidentales offer regular bus service between Quito (Terminal Terrestre bus station) and Esmeraldas (main plaza downtown) for about USD 5. PanAmericana does the same 5 hour trip in luxury buses for a few dollars more (departs Quito from station at Reina Victoria y Coln). Esmeraldas and Occidentales also leave Esmeraldas frequently for Guayaquil (8 hours, USD 7).

A Taxi from the bus stations in downtown Esmeraldas to Atacames takes a half hour and costs about USD 7 (the reverse route costs significantly less). Taxis at night are not recommended, as there have been hold-ups. During times of high demand there are often direct buses to Quito from Atacames, but buy your ticket well in advance (bus company offices are four blocks back from the beach across the footbridge over the river).

The Costenita and Del Pacífico local bus lines travel from the market below the main square in Esmeraldas to towns along the coastal road – Borbon, Atacames, Sua, Same, Muisne. These buses and rancheras are cheap, crowded, uncomfortable, and slow. If you’re traveling along the main coastal road, just flag one down – they pass at least every half hour until 10pm. Always watch your bags, and don’t take night buses into rural areas.

Rancheras are funky open-sided buses that bump and grind their way along deteriorated rural roads. Roof riding is a fun way to transport yourself from one local to the next, but be careful with the unforgiving equatorial sun and watch your bags.

All boat travel from San Lorenzo should be done by the normal hourly service from the main docks. Boat hiring should be done through Cidesa in Limones or with Manuel in San Lorenzo. Tourists attempting to hire boats outside regular procedures run the risk of being set up and robbed by pirates.

First class all the way; take in the sites and relax.

The San Lorenzo-Ibarra Train

In the earlier days, many visitors would get to San Lorenzo by means of the train that departed from the Andean city of Ibarra. Over the course of several years however, this means of transportation slowly fell out of use and eventually stopped working. Things have changed in recent years though. The tracks have now been rehabilitated and the trains are once again running the circuit, making spectacular journeys that connect Ibarra in the sierra all the way to San Lorenzo on the Ecuadorian coast.

Accommodations

With the exception of Same, Atacames, and the city of Esmeraldas, most accommodations in Esmeraldas province are at the budget level. Your typical no-frills but clean hostal will cost you about (USD 5-8) a night for a private room with shared bath. Even mid-range hotels rarely have hot water showers, which isn’t as bad as it sounds given the region’s year-round humidity. Most hotels do provide mosquito net or fans, essential precautions due to the presence of malaria in the region. There are several high end comfortable hotels and resorts in the area from south of the City of Esmeraldas down to Muisne. See the Costal hotels section for more information.

In small and remote villages, such as those situated in the upper reaches of the Cayapas and Santiago rivers, regular hotels may be non-existent. Family stays and camping are often possible, however. Camping is permitted and relatively safe at the following locations: the towns of Zapallo Grande and San Miguel and the village of Playa de Oro (all within or just outside the Cotocachi-Cayapas Reserve), Bilsa Reserve, and the Permaculture Station in San Lorenzo (inquire at the Hotel Continental with Mauro Caicedo). Do not camp at Atacames or Muisne due to safety concerns. Staying with a local family is an affordable option in almost all villages and is a great “in” to local culture; simply ask around at restaurants and stores.

Health

Malaria is normally present in the Esmeraldas region, so travelers should avoid potential exposure from about 5-7 pm, the approximate hours that Malaria carrying Anopheles mosquitos are present. One should consider following an anti-malarial drug regimen (doxycycline or mefloquine, see “Health” section for details), especially if staying for an extended period or visiting Muisne, San Lorenzo, or the Cayapas and Santiago river areas. (If you plan to be in these areas for only a few days, it’s debatable whether you should risk the potential side-effects of anti-malaria prophylaxis in exchange for increased protection. Many foreigners living in Ecuador opt to forgo medication.) Insect repellent with high levels of DEET should be applied religiously, and legs should be kept covered whenever possible. Insect repellent also helps prevent the mosquito-carried leishmaniasis skin infection, as well as keeping away other nasty critters, such as chiggers and ticks.

The succulent seafood of Esmeraldas is well-deserving of accolades, but make sure it’s well-cooked before you eat it if you don’t want to lose your tan to a few days locked in the bathroom. All ceviches (a classic Ecuadorian dish made of seafood cooked in lemon juice) should be consumed in reputable, clean restaurants that tailor to tourists. Also exercise caution with jugos naturales (fruit juices) and batidos (fruit juice with milk): alcoholic or otherwise, they could contain unboiled water which could cause stomach problems and sickness. Request that all water and milk be boiled before used to make your drink, or – for complete peace of mind and gut – provide a bottle of purified water for the establishment to use.

The equatorial sun is strong. Keep applying that sunscreen, especially while riding roof top on a bus, gliding along in a canoe, or sleeping away last night’s salsa dancing on the beach.

Health care facilities in Esmeraldas: hospitals in Esmeraldas (2) and San Lorenzo; private doctors in Esmeraldas, San Lorenzo, and Limones; clinics in Atacames, Borbon, and Limones; dispensaries in all of the above as well as Muisne and La Tola. Attention for any serious medical emergency should be sought at the private hospital in the city of Esmeraldas, located at Bolivar and Canizares. For further health care information, please visit our health section.

Safety

Avoid the park and downtown district in the city of Esmeraldas after dark and early in the morning. However, if you do wind up in Esmeraldas at night, the best place to hang out and wait for the next bus is the street opposite the Trans Esmeraldas bus station, where there are 24 hour stores and food kiosks, as well as the fire department and the police station.

The beaches at Atacmas and Muisne can be dangerous after dark. One should be cautious with overly-friendly people, scams of various types are common including drug and prostitution scams. Travelers should resist the temptation of cheap drugs in any case, considering that a lengthy jail term without trial awaits you if caught.

Like any traveler in an unfamiliar place, you can greatly reduce your vulnerability to unpleasant situations simply by using your common sense: Do not trust overly friendly or “helpful” people, especially teenagers. Do not travel alone in rural areas or at night. Do not get involved in “risky” situations. Watch your stuff, lock your hotel room at all times, and keep the key with you rather than leaving it with the front desk. Women travelers should always be alert and cautious, and should travel with trustworthy male company whenever possible. If you do find yourself a victim of a mugging or a potentially violent situation, you should always cooperate.

Climate and When to Go

Esmeraldas is the wettest coastal province, and “summer” is simply less rainy than the rest of the year. Most days in Esmeraldas dawn to bright sun, with tropical showers in the afternoon and at night.

January and February are considered by many the best months to visit Esmeraldas, as they receive the most sun. They are also the hottest (again, a relative term) months, however.

The northern coast and tropical forests of Esmeraldas receive more rain than the southern beaches and savannah.

What to Bring

Insect repellent (with DEET), high-factor waterproof sunscreen, sun hat, anti-malarial pills, rubber boots (can be bought in most towns), swimsuit, beach towel, camera, film of varying speeds, rain poncho.