GUAYAQUIL was for years regarded as one of Ecuador’s most dangerous cities, but following major regeneration programmes and public safety campaigns it has dramatically improved, with the central district now an unthreatening and surprisingly likeable place. When strolling the sparkling waterfront, it’s hard to imagine among the whisper of fountains and leafy walkways that not long ago the area was considered completely out of bounds. The improvements aren’t just cosmetic either: a reinvigorated cultural scene, thanks largely to important new exhibition spaces, and an ambitious overhaul of public transport point to an enduring and far-reaching transformation. Add all this to Guayaquil’s natural energy and intensity and you have a winning combination. Still, beyond the heavily patrolled attractions and glittering renovations, shades of the city of old continue to lurk; never take valuables onto the streets and always use a taxi after dark.
Away from downtown, the several upmarket residential suburbs (mostly gated communities with plenty of armed guards to keep the numerous poor and slum districts at bay), reflect Guayaquil’s status as the country’s wealthiest city, thanks mainly to its massive port that handles major national exports, including bananas, shrimp, cacao and coffee. It’s also Ecuador’s largest city, with a population of more than 2.3 million people to Quito’s 1.6 million, and there is a deep-seated rivalry between the two cities. As far as historical attractions go, Guayaquil lags far behind the capital, with only a smattering of colonial buildings still standing (most of the others having been destroyed in a 1942 earthquake). Nonetheless, Quito has nothing like Guayaquil’s gleaming riverside development, the Malecón 2000, which incorporates gardens, shopping centres, restaurants, a landmark museum, cinema and gallery and several of the city’s most famous monuments; it links downtown to the Cerro Santa Ana, a once-dangerous slum now ingeniously reinvented as a beacon of urban renewal, and Las Peñas, the city’s most charming historic district. The effect of the regeneration projects cannot be underplayed; the city is no longer a place visited out of necessity, but a destination in its own right.
Conquistador Francisco de Orellana founded the city as Santiago de Guayaquil on July 25, 1537, its name supposedly honouring the local Huancavilca chieftain Guayas and his wife, Quil, who killed themselves rather than be captured by the Spanish. From its earliest years it was the most important entry point into Ecuador (known then as the “Audiencia de Quito”) and quickly grew into a flourishing little port. Its fortunes were held back by the repeated attacks of pillaging British, French and Dutch buccaneers, regular fires engulfing its timber buildings and the deleterious mix of tropical climate and inadequate sanitation, which made it a hotbed of smallpox, yellow fever and typhoid. Nevertheless, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Guayaquil gradually took on the shape of a proper city, with new roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and markets, mostly funded by burgeoning exports of cacao, fruit and wood.
On October 9, 1820, it became the first city in Ecuador to declare its independence from Spain, and it was from here that General Sucre conducted his famous military campaign, culminating in the liberation of Quito on May 24, 1822. Shortly afterwards, Guayaquil went down in history as the site of the legendary meeting between the two liberators of South America, Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, whose campaigns from opposite ends of the continent were then drawing together in the middle. In the decades following independence, Guayaquil grew rapidly and asserted its considerable role in the new republic – Ecuador’s first bank was founded here in 1859, soon followed by a major public library and university. The tide of success turned in 1896, when the worst fire in its history wiped out seventy percent of the city in 36 hours.
Guayaquil was quickly rebuilt and became prosperous once more in the twentieth century, aided by the dramatic banana boom, which began in the late 1940s. The city’s pivotal role in the country’s international trade (and the huge increase in commerce at that time) funded new port facilities in 1963 and the construction of the massive three-kilometre Puente de la Unidad Nacional, the largest bridge on the Pacific coast of South America. In the last couple of decades numerous shanty towns have emerged on the city’s periphery, as thousands of people have migrated from the countryside in search of work; crime levels soared to the point where, in 1998, a state of emergency and nightly curfews were imposed for several months. These measures, along with a stronger police presence, have improved security in downtown areas such as the Malecón 2000, but vigilance is still required.