ESMERALDAS is the largest industrial port on the north coast and capital of Esmeraldas province, whose economy is mainly driven by an oil refinery at nearby Puerto Balao, which links up to the Trans-Andean oil pipeline, snaking 500km from the Oriente. Despite the city’s shaky infrastructure and the slums that fester on the hillsides fringing the centre, serranos are still drawn here by the lively atmosphere and beaches at Las Palmas, an upmarket suburb at the north end of town, where the city’s bars, discos and the more expensive hotels and restaurants are found.
The tree-filled parque central is the focal point of this city of 125,000, and bustles with street vendors, shoeshiners and fruit-juice sellers. The town’s only real attraction is the Museo del Banco Central, in a sprightly new building on the corner of Bolívar and Piedrahita, housing a good collection of regional pre-Columbian artefacts, particularly the wonderfully expressive ceramics of the La Tolita culture. The Centro Cultural Afro-Indio-Americano on Montalvo and Maldonado is where to find out more about Afro-Ecuadorian culture and history. The busy market, a block west of the Apart Hotel Esmeraldas, is an education in exotic fruits. The biggest city fiesta is the Independence of Esmeraldas on August 5, which includes dancing, processions and an agricultural fair, while around Carnaval there’s the Festival Internacional de Música y Danza Afro, held on Las Palmas beach, featuring marimba players, and traditional Afro-Hispano-American music and dance.
Land of emeralds
Land of emeralds
Esmeraldas town and province derive their name from the first visits of Spanish conquistadors, who entered coastal villages around here in 1531 and supposedly found emeralds the size of “pigeons’ eggs”; the moniker stuck, despite years of fruitless expeditions for phantom emerald mines.
Before the Conquest, the Esmeraldas coast was so heavily populated with indigenous tribes that Bartolomé Ruiz, who passed through the area on orders from Francisco Pizarro five years earlier, was afraid to land and anchored in the bay instead. The native population declined rapidly during the sixteenth century, probably due to the introduction of foreign diseases, Spanish military probes and the arrival of Africans as slaves and soldiers, which dramatically changed the region’s ethnic and cultural character.
The Afro-Ecuadorians here, possibly the descendants of escaped slaves from Guinea who survived a shipwreck off the Esmeraldas coast in 1553, had control of much of the region by the early seventeenth century, which hardly bothered the Spanish, who preferred to leave alone its impenetrable forests and hostile denizens. Pedro Vicente Maldonado, who became the provincial governor in 1729 at the age of 25, made the most successful exploration of the region in the colonial era, building the first road down from the highlands to the coast as far as Puerto Quito.
Little else is known about the region during this period, save for an account by Irish explorer William B. Stevenson, who in 1809 followed Maldonado’s footsteps and uncovered the settlement at Esmeraldas, which then comprised 93 houses on stilts. Even then, the legend of the emeralds lived on, as Stevenson wrote that the province derived its name “from a mine of emeralds which is found no great distance from Esmeraldas-town…I never visited it, owing to the superstitious dread of the natives who assured me that it was enchanted and guarded by an enormous dragon”.