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.

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