GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador - When we arrived at Parque Seminario on a Saturday afternoon, families were out in force. Little boys were holding cameras at arm’s length to photograph iguanas, and little girls were squealing when they discovered lizards beneath park benches. The mini-monsters were everywhere: underfoot, lounging in the grass, reclining on tree branches overhead, as if patiently awaiting their close-ups in a Godzilla flick.
Iguana Park, as it is called, had a sort of creepy appeal, and until recently it was the tourism highlight of Guayaquil. Most travelers bound for the Galápagos archipelago pass through this port city, but few intend to linger. When we found we had to stay a couple of extra days in Guayaquil to make economical air connections, we expected to be marking time before we could join our Ecoventura cruise. Instead, we found a scrappy city, Ecuador’s largest, on the rebound from nearly a century of neglect. Guayaquil may be a work in progress, but it has its charms, not the least of which are the friendly and gregarious Guayacos.
City leaders are proudest of Malecón 2000, a paved and lushly landscaped promenade along the Guayas River. Conceived in the late 1990s, the Malecón was Guayaquil’s turnaround project, and like the best civic projects, it is a boon to the city’s 2.3 million residents as well as a tourist magnet. The walkway never loses sight of the river, and diversions pop up all along its nearly 2-mile stretch. Small children play in swings or ride the miniature train. Teenagers in school uniforms giggle and flirt on the park benches, striking a pose every time they see a camera. The Malecón is dotted with ice cream stands, and vendors hawk Coca-Cola and bottles of ice-cold water.
The best place to eat that ice cream is on a bench in the Malecón’s lush botanical garden. Every time we stopped, gardeners were at work. In fact, the city seems to have boosted employment by hiring large numbers of gardeners, sanitation workers, and security guards, who earnestly advise tourists to watch their cameras.
Guayaquil has a history of rebounding, and the relatively new Museo Guayaquil en la Historia on the north quarter of the Malecón tells the city’s story with dioramas and dramatic narratives. Once the shipbuilding center of the Spanish Pacific, Guayaquil was left a smoldering ruin by French pirates in 1687. It bounced back. The city suffered in the wars for independence in the 1820s. It bounced back. The Great Fire of 1896 all but leveled Guayaquil. It bounced back. Resilience seems to be the civic theme.
Las Peñas, a district at the north end of the Malecón, is the most historic part of town. The neighborhood was the first settlement of Guayaquil and the city’s fishing port before it was destroyed in the Great Fire. A stairway street climbs up the colorful neighborhood that was rebuilt on the slopes of Santa Ana hill. Each of the 444 steps is numbered, in case you are so distracted by the views of the port and surrounding hills that you lose count. The stairway is lined with private homes and a few craft galleries, souvenir shops, and small restaurants. Enterprising residents sell cold soft drinks from their windows.
At the top, you can climb another 50 steps to the lens of a lighthouse that is a replica of the 1841 original, or explore the old cannons and the foundations of the original fort built to defend the city against pirates, although it’s hard to imagine how cannoneers could have targeted ships in the harbor so far below.
Security guards are posted at every level along the climb, but we felt they would be of more use to revive us from heat stroke than protect us from unseen assailants. Truth is, late 20th-century Guayaquil had a reputation as a dangerous city, but the guards made us more uneasy than secure - as if there were some threat we didn’t understand. We exercised the same common sense that we would anywhere (stay out of unfamiliar districts at night being the chief one) and felt perfectly safe when we departed from tourist-intense areas.
Like most large Latin American cities, Guayaquil has an artisanal crafts market, in this case on the corner of Calle Loja and Avenida General Córdova a few blocks from the base of Santa Ana hill. Merchants were eager to coax us in to look around. The stalls are full of predictable Galápagos kitsch - carved wooden tortoises, plush blue-footed boobies. But several also sell beautifully woven Panama hats, which despite their name originated in Ecuador. One stall of silver rings executed in multicolored spiny oyster shell was mobbed by Spanish-speaking women from Miami. They got a good discount for buying in bulk and persuaded the shopkeeper to pass it on to us.
The women might have been even more thrilled with their bargains had they visited the splendid municipal archeology museum first and seen some of the spiny oyster jewelry made along this coast 2,500 years ago. The small museum contains a treasure trove of beautiful ceramics that represent thousands of years of continuous culture. Some of the cases also display copper vessels and gold jewelry. Proving that there’s nothing new under the sun, most of the gold work consisted of ornaments for facial piercing.
The museum is part of the Casa de la Cultura cultural center in the heart of the city on the main drag of Nueve de Octubre, named for the date (Oct. 9) that Ecuador proclaimed independence from Spain in 1820. Much as we enjoyed the manicured Malecón, we were in our element amid Guayaquil’s vibrant street life. Everything happens on Nueve de Octubre, from crowds huddling around electronics stores to cheer their teams in televised soccer matches to commuters in a hurry hopping on and off buses that only come to a slow roll at the intersections.
The scene only intensified as night fell and the day’s heat began to dissipate. One older woman ventured onto the street at the same time every night to put down bowls of cat food for the strays. Couples made their way around the promenade in the large park that interrupts the street halfway down its length. Food vendors rolled out their carts and began cooking. One vendor, known as La Negrita Crucelina, stood on a wooden box with a chef’s cap barely containing her long hair as she cooked giant hamburger patties for a line of customers stretching halfway down the block.
By the time we left for the Galápagos, we were almost sad to go.
Where to stay and eat
Hotel Oro Verde
Nueve de Octubre and García Moreno
The leading modern hotel in Guayaquil has large, comfortable rooms with all the amenities. One of three restaurants in the hotel, El Patio, serves Ecuadoran cuisine, including an excellent breakfast buffet. Double room weekdays $169, weekend special $125. Cafetería El Patio open daily for breakfast and lunch. Entrees $7-$19.
Chile and 10 de Agosto
Located a little closer to the Malecón, the Continental is a modest business hotel with smaller rooms. La Canoa serves some of the city’s best Ecuadoran food. Double $110-$175. Cafetería La Canoa open 24 hours. Dinner entrées $5-$12.
Gardens of Malecón
This garden cafe sits beneath a pedestrian walkway adjacent to a small pond and stream favored by ducks. Daily specials on Ecuadoran plates. Open for lunch and dinner. Entrées $5-$11.
What to do
Museo de Arte Prehistorico
Casa de la Cultura
Nueve de Octubre and Pedro Moncayo
Tues-Fri 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat 9-3, $1 adults, 50 cents children, seniors, and students.
Museo Guayaquil en la Historia
Malecón at Calle Loja
Tues to Sun 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. $2 adults, $1 children and seniors.