A small, run-down town at the northwestern tip of the country, surrounded by sea inlets and mangrove swamps, SAN LORENZO isn’t exactly inviting with its ramshackle houses and pervasive sense of anarchy and disarray, evident in its dirty, potholed streets strewn with rubbish and periodically turned into muddy soup by the rain. Still, the town’s considerable number of Afro-Ecuadorians – largely the descendants of colonial African slaves and later labourers from the plantations and mines of Colombia – do provide a distinct cultural flavour, refreshingly different from the rest of the country, part of what sociologists call the “Pacific lowlands culture area”, extending down the coast from Panama to Esmeraldas province in Ecuador. One of its manifestations is the colourful sound of the marimba, the wooden xylophone whose driving rhythms are a key feature of music and dance on the north coast. The town has several groups that stage occasional performances, and it hosts an annual international marimba festival during the last week of May. You’ll also get plenty of fun and music at the town’s main fiesta from August 6–10.
San Lorenzo’s fortunes have long been tied to the railway from Ibarra. When the train opened in 1957, the population of this forgotten port doubled virtually overnight, but the anticipated economic boom never materialized; the train operated at a loss from the day it opened, and it became increasingly difficult to fund the repairs caused by frequent landslides and rockfalls. Damage from El Niño storms put an end to the full service in 1998, and it doesn’t look likely to reopen any time soon. The surviving portion of the railway runs only 25km inland to San Javier de Cachaví, and is serviced fairly regularly by a train that leaves when demand is sufficient. San Lorenzo is now connected by paved road to Ibarra and Esmeraldas; coastal through-traffic does not pass nearby, meaning San Lorenzo is once again becoming a forgotten port.
Officially, it’s possible for tourists to cross into Colombia from San Lorenzo, either by boat to Puerto Palma, and then on to Tumaco, or inland at Mataje, but in light of the increasingly dangerous conditions of remote border areas, it’s strongly advised that you do not enter Colombia at this point – use the crossing north of Tulcán instead. Note also that the town of San Lorenzo too is unsafe after dark. To find out more about current safety precautions, check your embassy’s travel advisories or ask locally at the police and immigration office in San Lorenzo (near the town’s entrance).