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Esmeraldas: Ecuador's African Coast?

Though only about 3% of Ecuador's population traces its roots to Africa, 70% of the people in Esmeraldas province are Afro-Ecuadorean. Most of its inhabitants are the descendents of maroons -- escaped slaves who lived in free communities.

Legend has it that the first Africans arrived in Esmeraldas in 1553, when a slave ship ran aground off the coast and the captives escaped. What is certain is that by the late 16th century, the area had a thriving maroon population that attracted a steady trickle of runaways from the gold mines and sugar plantations of Colombia. The Africans mixed with local Indians, who shared their knowledge of the region's flora and fauna, and established communities known as palenques along the main rivers and the coast, some of which were fortified to fend off Spanish attacks.

Though the maroon leaders maintained sporadic relations with colonial authorities in Quito, for the better part of the 17th century Esmeraldas virtually operated as an independent state ruled by a series of Afro-Amerindian kings. The Spaniards referred to the region as "La República de los Zambos," or "Zambo Republic," the term zambo being used to designate the offspring of an Indian and an African in the colonial caste system.

Though a few military campaigns made unsuccessful attempts to subdue the area, Esmeraldas's maroon communities lived in relative freedom and isolation for most of the colonial era, which allowed them to preserve a culture markedly different from that of the rest of Ecuador. It was one of dozens of areas in the Americas where escaped slaves managed to establish autonomous enclaves during the colonial era, but in terms of numbers and organization, Esmeraldas was one of the most important. It rivaled Palmares, a maroon kingdom near the Brazilian city of Bahía, which it took the Portuguese a century to subdue.

Just as the African traditions preserved in Palmares gave birth to the samba and batucada, Esmeraldas, too, has its traditional music, sometimes called currulao. This rhythmic style combines drums and marimbas -- a xylophonelike instrument of African origin -- and is usually accompanied by the gyrating hips of dancers, who are capable of shaking it for hours, despite the equatorial heat.

As it did in most of the world, the 20th century brought rapid change to Esmeraldas, eroding many of the region's traditions. Nevertheless, you can still get a taste of the province's African heritage by savoring an encocado -- a coconut seafood stew -- or by tracking down a bar with a band that plays currulao.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.