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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.
Guayaquil is packed with hotels, but few are geared towards tourists. Top-end establishments attract mainly corporate clients and nearly all have separate, much higher, rates for foreigners; single rooms are also hard to come by. The lower-end hotels are very good value but often double up as “motels” – places where couples are charged by the hour, but they’re usually clean and safe. Many of the cheaper hotels only have cold-water showers, while air conditioning is offered in all expensive and most mid-priced hotels. Given the cacophony of Guayaquil’s streets, it’s always worth asking if there are any back, or even internal, rooms available.
Much of the city’s nightlife goes on in the more affluent suburbs north of the centre, though if you’re on the Malecón after sundown a stroll up Cerro Santa Ana or Las Peñas will reveal clusters of inexpensive drinking holes, good spots for bar hopping.
Downtown restaurants fall into two broad categories: those serving cheap and simple almuerzos, and those (usually attached to the smarter hotels) offering good-quality, but overpriced, menus. A more concentrated collection of restaurants, as well as bars and nightclubs, lines Avenida Estrada, the main drag of the affluent suburb of Urdesa; take buses #52 and #54 from the Malecón, #10 from Parque del Centenario, or go by taxi (20min; $3–4). You’ll find plenty of fast-food outlets at the CC Malecón mall, including several taco and seafood bars, as well as others at the northern end of the promenade. The big shopping centres like Mall del Sol feature huge food courts with dozens of familiar international fast-food chains.
The city’s biggest fiestas are July 24, Simón Bolívar’s birthday, and July 25, the foundation of the city, celebrated together in a week of events and festivities known as the fiestas julianas, complete with processions, street dancing and fireworks. Another important bash is October 9, for the city’s independence, which is combined with the Día de la Raza on October 12, commemorating Columbus’s discovery of the New World. New Year’s Eve is celebrated with the burning of the años viejos, large effigies, on the Malecón at midnight.
The Malecón ends in the north at the picturesque barrio of Las Peñas, itself at the foot of Cerro Santa Ana. There’s little more to it than a short, dead-end road – Numa Pompilio Llona – paved with uneven, century-old cobblestones, but the colourful wooden houses here make this one of the prettiest corners of Guayaquil. Many of the houses have been beautifully restored, but part of the area’s charm derives from the flaking paint and gentle disrepair of those that haven’t. A couple of cannons standing by the entrance point towards the river, honouring the city’s stalwart resistance to seventeenth-century pirates, and the street is dotted with a few small art galleries; the best is the Casa del Artista Plástico of the Asociación Cultural Las Peñas.
Rising above Las Peñas, the Cerro Santa Ana was a very dangerous slum until a regeneration project transformed a swath of its ramshackle buildings into an eye-catching sequence of brightly painted houses, restaurants, bars and shops built around a winding, 444-step staircase to a viewpoint at the top of the hill: the Plaza de Honores, home to a colonial-style chapel and lighthouse modelled after Guayaquil’s first, from 1841.
With its discreet balconies, ornate lampposts and switchback streets leading from intimate plazas, the development does a fair job of evoking the image of a bygone Guayaquil – despite the plastic “tiled” roofs, heavy presence of armed guards and large locked gates blocking out the slums at its margins. Yet the spectacular views from the Plaza de Honores and the top of the lighthouse are definitely worth a visit, particularly after a day on the Malecón as the sun dips on the seething city below. Just below the Plaza de Honores, the open-air Museo El Fortín del Santa Ana holds cannons, seafaring paraphernalia, the foundations of the fortress of San Carlos, built in 1629 to defend the city from pirate attacks, and a reconstructed pirate ship, half of which is a bar. Further below, down by the river, the Puerto Santa Ana is the city’s latest regeneration project, currently being developed as a marina complete with waterside cafés, restaurants and apartments.
The busy Malecón Simón Bolívar skirts the western bank of the wide, yellow-brown Río Guayas; it always heaves with traffic but the long pedestrianized section by the waterfront, known as the Malecón 2000, is the most pleasant place to stroll in town. Skilfully designed, diligently maintained and the most beloved public space in the city, it features a large, paved esplanade filled with trees, botanical gardens, contemporary sculpture and architecture, shopping malls and restaurants. It also connects some of Guayaquil’s best-known monuments along a promenade, which security guards regularly patrol, enclosed by railings and accessed only at guarded entrance gates – making it one of the safest places to spend a day in Guayaquil.
Its centrepiece is the Plaza Cívica, reached by gates at the end of 9 de Octubre or 10 de Agosto. As you enter the gates, you’re faced with La Rotonda, an imposing statue of South America’s liberators, José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, shaking hands against a background of tall marble columns topped by billowing South American flags. The monument, which looks stunning when illuminated at night, commemorates the famous encounter between the two generals here on July 26 and 27, 1822. It’s designed so two people whispering into the two end pillars can hear each other – though the din of the traffic somewhat undermines the effect.
South of La Rotonda are sculptures dedicated to the four elements, with fire and earth doubling up as timber-and-metal lookout towers crowned by sail-like awnings. The views from the top are striking: on one side the urban sprawl stretches to the horizon, while on the other the low, fuzzy vegetation across the river lies completely free of buildings. Looking north, the huge bridge of Puente de la Unidad Nacional stretches across to the suburb of Durán, from where the famous Quito–Guayaquil trains used to leave. Beyond the sculptures and past the Yacht Club, the 23-metre Moorish clock tower marks the southern end of the Plaza Cívica.
South of the clock tower is the CC Bahía Malecón shopping centre and the dignified Plaza Olmedo, dedicated to statesman and poet José Joaquín de Olmedo (1780–1847), the first mayor of Guayaquil and a key agitator for the city’s independence. At the southern end of the promenade, the Mercado Sur, a splendid construction of glass and wrought iron, is floodlit at night to dazzling effect and is a wonderful space for temporary exhibitions and events. Opposite, indigenous flower sellers surround the elegant Iglesia San José, and south of the Mercado Sur lies a small clothes and artesanía market, though you’ll have to bargain hard to get a good deal. The real clothes bargains are to be found over the road from the Malecón at the sprawling Las Bahías market, sited on several blocks around the pedestrianized streets on both sides of Olmedo, near the bottom of the Malecón 2000.
North of the Plaza Cívica is a succession of sumptuous botanical gardens, fountains, ponds and walkways; each garden is themed on a historical period or Ecuadorian habitat, such as the Plaza de las Bromelias, a lavish concoction of cloudforest-like trees swathed in mosses and bromeliads. At the northern end of the promenade is an IMAX cinema; http://www.imax.com/theatres/t/imax-malecon-2000/. Below it, in the same building, Guayaquil en la Historia displays the evolution of the city, with fourteen beautifully crafted miniature reconstructions of various scenes, accompanied by information in English.