319km (198 miles) W of Quito; 472km (293 miles) N of Guayaquil; 185km (115 miles) W of Santo Domingo

When the Spanish first landed here in 1526, they were greeted by indigenous peoples wearing all manner of emerald jewelry and adornments, so they named the place Esmeraldas, meaning "emeralds." The local tribes never provided the Spaniards with much in the way of riches, and the conquistadors soon sought their fortunes elsewhere. Today Esmeraldas is the main port and transportation hub for this region and the capital of the province. It is also a major oil-processing and shipping point, with the completion of a Trans-Andean pipeline bringing in fresh crude from El Oriente.

And while there are scores of hotels and some decent beaches here, most visitors make a beeline to Atacames and its surrounding beaches, which are much, much nicer.

Still, if you're coming out to this neck of the woods, you'll almost certainly pass through Esmeraldas. Moreover, Esmeraldas serves as a good gateway for the very remote northernmost section of Ecuador's Pacific coast, which includes San Lorenzo and La Tolita.