From Colombia to Esmeraldas: a route full of surprises
It only takes a few hours to travel from Colombia to Esmeraldas. Even minutes: by plane, the ride is no more than 40. The Ecuadorian airline Tame is the route’s most frequent flyer, a route increasingly requested by Colombians. Tame operates three flights a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) from the Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport in Cali to the General Rivadeneira International Airport in the province of Esmeraldas. By bus or car, the same route takes around seven hours, if our starting point is Ipiales (in the south of Colombia).
From Ipiales, the advisable thing to do is to make it to Ibarra, capital of the province of Imbabura, also known as the ‘white city’. To get there, the most direct route is by way of the Pan American highway (E35) . The roads are in good condition; the landscapes along the way spectacular and travel is easy, just two and a half hours by car. You won’t feel a thing. Ibarra is a quaint, picturesque and compact city, a good place to calm your appetite. Everything here is delicious and comes well served: you can discover the classic empanadas de morocho, hominy with pork scratchings, fresh corn-on-the-cob and farmer’s cheese, the excellent paila ice cream, the delicious fritada de ‘cajón’ (pork fried in its own grease) or the traditional alpargate; a dish made with red meat, potatoes, popcorn, cheese and avocado.
Ibarra also has its share of architectural gems. Both inside and outside the city, it is still possible to find many of the most extensive and productive haciendas of Ecuador’s heyday, places that, upon modern restoration, function as comfortable, even luxurious, countryside inns. Most of them still retain their old facades and a trace of the materials with which they were built: wood, stone and adobe. Azaya, Chorlaví, La Victoria, Zuleta, Pimán and La Esperanza are some of the properties that have managed to stand over time as true and admirable relics.
Ibarra, in addition, is a destination full of wooded parks and natural wonders such as the awe-inspiring Yahuarcocha Lake. A quick stop near its shore is a unique opportunity to get a fresh whiff of nature.
Community tourism in El Chota Valley
Another nearby visit, full of history, culture and much joy, is El Chota Valley. The area is known for being the birthplace of many a skilled footballer, but it is also a land of great musicians and craftsmen. Here, the “bomba” was born, a traditional rhythm that brings together Afro-Ecuadorian and Andean heritage into a musical style that embodies the contagious passion of the inhabitants of the area and an invitation to dance that no one can refuse. Watching how smiling women dance bomba is a true spectacle to behold. In recent years, in fact, and as part of community tourism initiatives, many women have organized to teach the dance steps to visitors. In no other corner of the world will you learn the secrets of this graceful dance, and witness how a bottle can balance on one’s head while bobbing up and down to the rhythm.
Families, on the other hand, have adapted their homes to receive visitors who are interested in learning first-hand how Choteños live. Tourism packages, in addition to accommodation, include the possibility of accompanying hosts on their daily activities. Among the most interesting visits are the eco-farms from which a small, round bean known as gandul is harvested. It is in fact a culinary staple here, the main ingredient of one of the most succulent typical dishes of the area.
A colorful journey through time
Given its proximity to Ibarra (barely thirty minutes away), don’t miss out on Otavalo, another town from which every visitor comes away in awe.
The market at the Plaza de los Ponchos (Poncho square), every weekend brings in countless friendly and skilled local artisans and is world-renowned.
Ponchos, bags, blankets, scarves, pants, shirts and many other items of clothing display the colors of ancestral fabrics that have made this corner of the world well known throughout the world for its fashion sense.
After tasting a traditional and delicious fritada cooked in bronze paellas, accompanied by a refreshing glass of chicha de jora (a beverage made from fermented maize), the next inescapable activity in town is to embark on the fantastic Tren de la Libertad (Freedom Train).
Hop on these elegant wagons and travel the Andes on the world’s highest railroad system, a very special experience indeed. There are few opportunities as wonderful as this to appreciate and photograph the geography and beauty of the Andes and the particular charm of the small towns you encounter along the way. The train, which among other recognitions has received the Best Luxury Train in South America award, offers a “cruise” package that takes visitors all the way to the coastal regions of the country, as well as other shorter routes that reach, for example, Salinas (near Otavalo) or Machachi (in the province of Pichincha).
Welcome to the Coast!
From Ibarra, the route continues on the E10 highway, towards the town of San Lorenzo, located northwest of Esmeraldas. This canton is known above all for eco-tourism and adventure. A corner that combines both features is the Salto del Tigre waterfall, a spectacular waterfall surrounded by an extensive and fragrant primary forest. San Lorenzo is also a sanctuary of flora and fauna, that is why it has two emblematic natural areas: the La Chiquita Reserve and part of the Mataje-Cayapas mangrove reserve.
The first is a habitat full of hummingbirds, owls, tanagers, hawks and other fascinating endemic species. In the second, on the other hand, you will encounter the tallest mangroves in the world, which in turn are the best preserved in South America. Their height, on average, reaches 60 meters. They are so tall that, seen from afar, they reach up to the clouds.
From here you must take another highway, the E15, also known as the “Troncal del Pacífico”, heading southwest. One of the most special beaches on this route is Las Peñas. They say that here you can find the best coconut smoothies this side of Esmeraldas, as well as the most succulent shrimp and fish dishes. And they are right. Near Las Peñas, 20 minutes by car, there is also a dazzling, little known spot called Olmedo, a small town full of colorful houses with open doors, where all the neighbors greet you when walking by, where one of the most rugged, least invaded and most natural beaches in the area is . The roots of the mangroves (named for their shape and disposition), so haughty in their habitat, frame this corner of unsuspected beauty.
From Olmedo, in less than an hour, you reach the district of Rioverde. Known as the cradle of the heroes that proclaimed independence for Esmeraldas, this is the right place to lie down to rest at one of its many beaches: Vanilla, Colapez, Tacuza, Paufí, Bocana or Africa. The latter, located just north of Montalvo, is locally known because it is home to one of the most peculiar archaeological collections in the country.
There, on San Rafael hill, a rustic museum built out of wood and a thatched roof, with bamboo shelves and tables, exhibits over 4,000 pieces belonging to pre-Columbian cultures of Chorrera (1800 BC – 300 BC) and Tolita (600 BC – 300 AD). La Tolita, above all, is well known for its impressive goldsmithing and pottery work.
Anthropomorphic figures, ceramic bowls, weapons, hunting tools, fossils, shells, corals, Spondylus shells, precious stones (amethysts, gold, emeralds) and even a piece of meteorite are part of the collection.
Don Archimedes Simisterra is the proud owner of these vestiges found around his beach, Africa, since 1987. A chance to converse with him is a true luxury, as his life is a slew of fantastic stories and memories of his youth. He was a navigator and at one time travelled to Europe, Africa and Asia, and was imbued with the “cosmic energy” of those continents before he returned to his tiny, native beach. Those who want to hear these feats and other legends, can stay in the rooms that Don Arquímedes created near the museum. For breakfast, a good cup of coffee and a plantain bolón in the company of Don Archimedes, is an experience to treasure.
Another beach as extensive and paradisiacal is Cumilinche (18 km southwest from Casa Blanca). This area is characterized, above all, by being surrounded by leafy palm trees, which provide a cool shade. Cumilinche is also a privileged by its climate, the warmth of its sea and its wildlife. Sea turtles use the beach to deposit their eggs, while seagulls and pelicans soar above. Nature trails also take you to forested areas where iguanas, ocelots, armadillos, and anteaters roam.
The most intrepid visitors can take advantage of the strong waves of this part of the coast to practice water and adventure sports. It is hard for any member of the family to not find excitement here.
Tradition and comfort
Before reaching Same and the exclusive beach resort of Casa Blanca, it is well worth strolling through the city of Esmeraldas, capital of the province. Enjoy the music, the delicious cuisine and the agile stride of their talented footballers who come out to Las Palmas beach to play. The recently remodeled boardwalk is one of the most modern in Ecuador… and inclusive, since it is the only beachfront designed and adapted for disabled and elderly people.
Esmeraldas, the city itself, takes you back in time. Find many old houses made of wood that still stand despite earthquakes and city fires. In the store fronts of these buildings find the famed herb and spices sellers from which you can buy all kinds of medicinal plants to heal and ward off any evil spell.
Another equally alternative to purify the body and mind is to set out and explore the Mache – Chindul Ecological Reserve, located in the southwestern region of the province. In this protected area of over 119,000 hectares there are wet and dry forests full of wildlife. Among the foliage, you can visit Lake Cube (a 21-hectare lake), an area declared a globally important wetland due to its biodiversity and ecology.
Many of Esmeraldas’ most important rivers are born from here –Muisne, Chebe, Atacames, and Tigua –and that is why swimming and canoeing are popular activities within the reserve. You can also trek through the jungle, camp, horseback ride or bike along the trails.
En esta zona también nacen muchos de los ríos más importantes de Esmeraldas —Muisne, Chebe, Atacames, Tigua— y por eso la natación y los paseos en canoa son actividades permitidas dentro de la reserva.
Nearby lie the Túneles de Colorado and Rancho Pablito. The first is a 5-kilometer-long natural tunnel (a good place to see bats), and the second takes you to a series of waterfalls and forests in which species of native flora and fauna abound.
Renewed and clean from negative vibes of everyday stress, we can now head towards our first-class haven of peace and relaxation: Green 9, Same Spa & Beach Resort.