Esmeraldas City: of river and sea

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Esmeraldas City

They say that a child without TV is a child who knows no boredom. It must be similar for a city without cinemas. Esmeraldas, the capital of its province, with a population of around 200,000 inhabitants, has none. Esmeraldeños have to travel to the closest city, Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, wasting a total of 6 hours there and back, to catch the latest Fast and Furious instalment. “Yes,” they tell us laughing, “during the premieres it’s only Esmeraldeños in the room!”

 At some point in history, Esmeraldas had cinemas, as it also had its long-forgotten “salones de baile” (dance halls). It is a pity none survive; that a people so naturally inclined to dancing – as soon as they hear the rattling of a pencil on a desk they begin to wiggle their hips – have let something so close to their heart beats disappear with the times.

It was all across Barrio Caliente(the “Hot” District) – named after the four-hour fire of May 18, 1951 – that, through a clever twist to the nickname, “hot” ballrooms like El Gato, El Azul, or La Boca del Lobo proliferated. In its place, today, is central point of reference for the city that back in the ballroom days did not yet exist, on Calle 6 de Diciembre and Salinas: the Folke Anderson Stadium, an emblem of Esmeraldas that reveals yet another missing link in its entertainment: the Ecuadorian football championship.

Beach city

 As visitors, we’d love to go back in time, and see the old wooden houses of the past filled with elegant salsa-dancers… and yet, Esmeraldeños don’t seem to miss it at all. They’ve diverted much of their entertainment to a fitting part of town: the beach, which seems so large and wide that you could feasibly imagine the entire city taking advantage of the shore at once.

 The delightful Esmeraldas horizon, Playa Las Palmas, is the axis of the city’s sense of freedom and recreation. The desire to dance, the need to kick a ball around, time spent together, and of course, the love of good food all come together here. Apart from the enormous oil refinery that one finds at the exit of the city, Las Palmas’ malecón is one of the important urban projects of recent times (proudly conceived as the first beach in the country to provide accessibility for the disabled and elderly), revealing a first “dream come true” in terms of urban transformation. There is an area of streets parallel to the shore that offers everything you’d wish for in terms of food and drink. In addition, there are the more rustic kiosks on the beach that should not be overlooked. Especially in the case of ¡Oh Mar!, on the far side near the fishing port, an icon at lunchtime (its ensumacaorecipe is patented!). In the mornings and late afternoon, beach football is a must and the long stretch of sand heading west to the port of Balao offers a wonderful peak at the beautiful stretch of dry forest that remains… The sand, the waves and the sun dominate by day, and by night the rhythms of the night clubs gets all true Esmeraldeños’ blood pumping.

The Green Threat

 With so much footballing talent, one wonders how is it that Esmeraldas does not have a single team in first division football. This city has historically been one of the most important producers of footballers in the country. This is the case of Antonio Valencia, for example, who is the only Ecuadorian footballer many European or worldwide fans of the beautiful game can truly name. Although he was born in Lago Agrio, in the Amazonian province of Sucumbíos, his family is from Esmeraldas, and still lives in the city. As a Manchester United player, in May 2017 he became the first Ecuadorian to win a European continental cup with the team. And he was not only a player on the squad, he was the captain in the final! Another historic player from Esmeraldas, Iván Hurtado, has the most caps in Ecuadorian history. And the Ecuadorian national team’s second-highest goal scorer of all time, Eduardo “El Tanque” Hurtado, also hails from this city.

 Let us then go back to the 1960s, when Ecuadorian army championships measured the footballing mettle of battalions from different provinces. The battalion from Esmeraldas was famously nicknamed “The Green Threat” (la Amenaza Verde). It consisently won everything. To the point that when the Armed Forces decided to contribute their team to the national premier league, they were able to do so thanks to the players of this battalion.

The team soon became one of the most important in the country: El Nacional, stationed in Quito. With twelve national championships under its belt, El Nacional is one of Ecuador’s four “greats”, and have historically based their team on players from Esmeraldas. And we can say the same for the national team, from goalies to star forwards, some of the best players Ecuador has produced (Alexander Domínguez, Walter Ayoví, Segundo Castillo… even “Chucho” Benítez, who has always considered himself “culturally Esmeraldeño”) are from this very city.

The footballing past of Barrio Caliente and the city of Esmeraldas in general is on display at the bar of Gerardo Estupiñán, La Número Uno (on Ricaurte and 6 de December). Decorating the walls, find photographs and memorabilia of Gerardo’s brother Ítalo Estupiñán. The beloved “Gato Salvaje” (Wild Cat) was one of the first Ecuadorians to play abroad (1975), and the first to become champion in Mexico.

A timeless corner of Esmeraldas (Calles Piedrahita & Pedro Vicente Maldonado). Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

Mangrove city

Esmeraldas still features astounding vestiges of the past. You enter the city on a modern highway that crosses forests, rivers and mangroves that for centuries were impossible to penetrate.

You are then quickly enveloped in pavements and buildings, yet along the street that edges by the river (calle Bolívar), which soon becomes Pedro Vicente Maldonado, you notice large sheds and zinc roofs, where loggers gather their wood for sale and a river flows ever so slowly, taking us back to the very essence of the city.

The practice of gathering fine hardwood is ancestral… Here you see the docks, Bailey bridges and vegetation that the rest of the city manages to hide behind its concrete. It represents a reality that no other city of importance in the country has been able to keep alive.

 In fact, Esmeraldas was always more a mangrove bed than a concrete jungle… until the oil boom swooped down in the mid-1970s. Today, a more comprehensive view of this forested enclave can be admired from the Tachina jetty (via the airport), which offers a romantic view of an Esmeraldas wrapped in green. You can also discover the only protected mangrove bed within the confines of a city, the Esmeraldas River Estuary Wildlife Reserve. The small community of Pianguapí offers boat rides and visits.

Another place to observe the dramatic joining of the Esmeraldas river and the Pacific Ocean, and the city spread out against these spectacular bodies of water, is the viewpoint at the Catholic University (PUCESE). On Calle Eugenio Espejo, half a block past Calle Colón, an elegant black gate leads you up Santa Cruz Hill. The astonishing view reveals the power of nature and man’s struggle to dominate it. Or, as the pen of poet Diogenes Cuero would describe it: “A painter, stricken by palsy, with his brush raised against the beauty of sunset on the bay…”.

You can grab some tropical rice-and-beans at the university cafetería and enjoy the grounds, their beautiful trees, and tropical birds flitting by.

Before or after visiting PUCESE, don’t miss the plaza/parking lot of San Pedro, one block away on Espejo. Find coconut sweets, virgin coconut oil (mixed with carrots for stretch marks), indigenous crafts, cocoa liquor, toy marimbas… and refresh yourself across the street, where Huguito offers “the best coconut water in all Esmeraldas”. It is impossible to overlook the coconuts piled to one side of the road. Don’t miss the special cocadasmade by Mayra Ortiz, stuffed with passion fruit, manjar, guava or chocolate… if they are not for sale at the San Pedro kiosks, look for her workshop at the “little purple house” half a block back towards PUCESE, on Espejo.

Healing heart

A defining view of the city can be found at the intersection of Piedrahita and Pedro Vicente Maldonado. We can’t tell how long these age-old wooden houses will continue to stand… they come from another age, when the river lapped their wooden pillars. They are fabulous windows to a world forgotten in other parts of coastal Ecuador.

It is hard to imagine who could live on the warped hardwood floors of the second floor, but all along the ground floor you’ll find a series of medicinal plant stores, as well as a large bodega with dried fish and clusters of hanging plaintains straight out of a black-and-white early-20thcentury photo.

On Saturday mornings, people come from various corners of the country, even from the Andes, with plants of all kinds. You can buy a bundle of “sweet herbs” (that bring good luck) or “bitter herbs” (that counter bad luck), soaking plants to fill the tub with and relieve stress (among the best sellers), cures for arthritis, for the blues or insomnia… The shop owners are alternative medicine moguls in their own right, and know all the combinations to make malva, tintino, nacedera, soursop leaf or “horsetail” work for you and cure evils trained doctors underestimate.

As you walk down Piedrahita towards the heart of the city, you reach one of the most important cultural sites in Esmeraldas, the Regional Museum of Archeology (Museo Regional de Arqueología), which is beginning a new life after several months of refurbishment, offering a brief tour of local prehistory and ancient cultures of the area (La Tolita, Tiaoné…). There are few museums in Esmeraldas, in general. The Casa de la Cultura has a library with a space to one side that sometimes offers temporary exhibits; there is also the Adalberto Ortiz Municipal Library, whose façade is curiously made out of hundreds of recycled bottles, and which, apart from the books, offers a photographic retrospective of the city. You can also check out the cultural agenda at the Municipal Conservatory of Esmeraldas, which offers dance and music shows.

Activity gravitates to the two urban parks: the colorful Parque Infantil, where families crowd to give their children some running space and Parque “20 de mayo”, with its gallant trees and huge leafy branches that loom overhead. An eye-catching sculpture of a black woman, which replaces an old fountain, accompanies the solitary soldier of the central monument, a tribute to the dead during the civil war between liberals and conservatives in Ecuador that at the turn of the twentieth century shook the country, and the province in particular. In honor of leader Luis Vargas Torres, shot on May 20, this park feels like the axis of downtown Esmeraldas.

On the western end you’ll find the modern La Merced Church and on the other corner, the soon to be operational Tourist Information Center, where, in addition to finding local crafts, you will be able to learn of all there is to do throughout the city and province. Fruit carts featuring exotic fruits such as the “chonta”, carts selling coconut water, as well as the legendary cart of Don Sacoto and his family, a school teacher who dedicated his life to showcasing some of the unknown classics of Esmeraldas’ sweeter recipes, such as the “casave“, “majaja” or “champú” (based on corn, unrefined brown sugar and fruits like soursop, naranjilla or guava)… all delicious if imbibed mid-afternoon.

Places to look out for in the city could include the Municipal Market(four blocks north of the central plaza) where you can feast your eyes on an array of delicious fruits, and look out for (and taste) a slice of the coconut’s “apple”; the almost avant-garde Catedral Cristo Rey; or the food court at the Puerto Pesquero Artesanal(Artisanal Fishing Port). But we leave with the idea that what makes Esmeraldas so special is its profound cultural legacy, exemplified by two unforgettable monuments: the volatile statues in honor of the marimba, near the entrance to downtown Esmeraldas on calles Olmedo and Pedro Vicente Maldonado; and the monument at the Civic Square in honor of the great poet/novelist Nelsón Estupiñán Bass, with beautiful relief works decorating the base of the statue… A land of muses, of rivers, of open ocean… of poetry, talented dribblers and devilish dance steps…

Other nearby places of interest

  •  Mútile / Jardín Tropical de Esmeraldas: A mountain wrapped in forest… like that of the Technical University Luis Vargas Torres… which has turned into a beautiful botanical garden worth visiting.Monasterio Trapense Sta. María de la Esperanza: Only minutes from the city, find peace and recollection at this religious refuge amid tropical trees for a good morning or afternoon of reflection and rest (offers food and overnight). For more information, call +(593 6) 304 3601.
  • Santuario de Loreto: Just outside of the city, past the bridge of the Tiaone River, you will notice the beautiful view of this orange temple surrounded by forest, which you can stop and visit: a curious replica of the Sanctuary of Loreto in Italy.

Esmeraldas, finger-licking good

Our picks:

Delicious flavors made in Esmeraldas. Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

Near and around Las Palmas:

  • ¡Oh mar! try the ensumacao seafood platter.
  • Nuevo Amanecer try the tablita.
  • Jututo try the tapao arrecho.
  • Damasco excellent Syrian food where you least expect it!

 

Downtown:

  • Carnes de Cedeño locals love a good BBQ and this is one not to miss.
  • La “sasón” de la tía Sixta (pronunced as “sista”), one of the city’s most beloved food stalls turned into a dive, serving the classic “encocao” and all its possible variations.
  • Cevichería Lider the essence of ceviche with all the local ingredients.

You can also look for the classic fish tapao, sometimes on the menu at the Municipal Market food courts.

Learn about the fishing prohibitions… especially of black shells (which must be over 4.5 cm for consumption), blue crab and lobster. Those who don’t respect them are not doing themselves any favors!

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