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Introducing Esmeraldas

The Spanish conquistadors made their first Ecuadorian landfall on this broad, sandy bank flanked by a sparkling river and surrounded by low green hills. Esmeraldas has been an influential port town throughout history but its modern incarnation is not pretty. Many of its cement structures are either half-finished or half-fallen, the frenzied streets harbor drugs and petty crime and the forests have surrendered to scrub brush.

These days fishing and shipping take a backseat to the oil refinery processing the contents of the trans-Ecuadorian oil pipeline, which adds its share of noise and pollution. This, combined with the fact that Esmeraldas is considered one of Ecuador’s most dangerous major cities, makes it an improbable destination.

Still, visitors should know that esmeraldeños (residents of Esmeraldas) are seriously preoccupied about their reputation and some will go out of their way to prove how amenable they are. If you can negotiate the mean streets, you’ll find a fun and gregarious culture under hard times. Most tourists just spend the night (if they have to) and continue southwest to the towns of Atacames, Súa and Mompiche, where the best beaches are found.