Esmeraldas – Las Peñas: northern trails

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Before reaching the fascinating “northern world” of Esmeraldas, we must first tread northeast along a wild coastline full of surprises. As we approach the border with Colombia, the province becomes more natural… the villages are lower, with bamboo huts lining the sidewalks; the beaches are more deserted; life, more rural… and the food, something to discover.

As you leave the city of Esmeraldas or head east from San Mateo, drive via Tachina and then San Lorenzo. One of the first settlements, east of the provincial capital, is Camarones (Shrimps) and as the name suggests, we can only imagine their abundance in some distant past. In the village, you can enquire about canoe tours of the small river delta, a great place to find out more about the ancient fishing practices of the local people.

Riverbanks of the Esmeraldas River, heading north. Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

Not far along, we cross the border from Esmeraldas to the district of Rioverde and the small town of Palestina welcomes us. Just before the entrance, before the bridge that separates Palestina from its “twin city” Rioverde, look for a small road to the right, towards the nearby neighborhood of El Alto, where the classic banana, guava and coconut preserves made with sweet sugar cane and coco are produced.

From this point, an interesting “cocoa and sweets route” has been created, which takes you to different riverside villages, where you can visit small-scale cacao farms and admire the tropical riverbanks of the Chumundé river. The visit ends on a boat on this river (there is no path past the village of Chumundé) at the sculptural waterfall of Medianía.

The entire canton of Rioverde is culinary par excellence, and we quickly notice the inventiveness in each recipe and, above all, the inventiveness of each of the recipe’s names. Not far from El Alto, you reach hamlet of San Vicente, where the star dish (and the name of the restaurant that serves it) is “El Enganche” (the Hook)… because, as the owner says, you’ll be immediately hooked: river shrimp, smoked chicken and pork, with a huge plantain pattie, rice and a glass of iced lemonade. Passing Palestina’s bridge to the right, continue to the north and San Lorenzo, but make a quick right at Vuelta Larga de Rioverde (there is also a Vuelta Larga near the city of Esmeraldas) in Cevicangre, another culinary classic of the district.

The famous “bocanas”

The road continues northeast, leading us to several small roads. Soon you will notice that exits begin to mark the way to a series of “bocanas”, which are basically beaches where rivers flow into the sea…

They are all interesting visits, although you probably don’t want to go to them all.

The first beach is Paufí, where the touted “La Pasión” is served, a seafood encocaowith passion fruit. Then, just at the entrance of the town of Montalvo, the signs mark the way to Bocana de Ostiones, where a local woman’s association prepares the “Tres sin Sacar“, a three-ingredient seafood platter with sea prawns, squid and pateburro(a local sea snail species).

A few meters away from the town of Montalvo, there is another detour towards Playa África, where there is no typical dish that stands out, but you can visit the interesting museum of Arquímedes (Museo San Rafael), or you may want to stay at the new cabins, part of a community project called “Go Playa Africa” (look it up at www.goplayaafrica.org).

Bocana de Lagarto is the next beach east, where you can try what is perhaps the most extravagant of these coastal dishes: “Los Sietes Sabores del Mar” (The Seven Flavors of the Sea”), seven seafood ingredients (pateburro, sea prawns, pangoracrabs, river clams) all cooked differently, some encocao-style, others grilled or breaded… the vegetation here is drier, which is also evident at the next “bocana”: Vainilla, also called Vainillita, with its peculiar, squat forest and rocky, deserted beach.

From this point on, there are two options, or veer left and continue to Las Peñas or head right to Borbón where you can embark on a spectacular river adventure and meet the “marimbe

The chachi people from La Medianía

Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

From Chumundé inland you reach Chachi territory (which extends south to the Canandé River). They come from the northern Andes, but were guided by their wise elderly leaders to flee the Inca expansion, migrating into the coastal jungles of present-day Esmeraldas. Today, they have established themselves in an area of approximately 110,000 hectares (270,000 acres) amid lush forest and majestic rivers.

Once called Cayapas, “Chachi”, which means “pure man/people” in the native Chá Palaa language, is the term they feel truly identifies them.

Their traditions and language remain, despite the strong influence of Western culture and they continue to subsist from hunting, artisanal fishing, collecting fruits and nuts and maintaining small family vegetable gardens. Women make wonderful weaved baskets and other utensils for domestic use. When you visit, you will surely hear the word ura’sabe. It means thank you.

For guided tours to Medianía and its surroundings contact Marlon de la Cruz: + (593 9) 3952 3693.

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