By Linda McFarlin
My previous impressions of Guayaquil, the bustling city on the coast of Ecuador, were formed by stories I heard back in 2002 when staying in Vilcabamba—“Don’t go to there,” people told me. “It’s way too dangerous and dirty.”
My how things have changed! Our friend, Roberto Baquerizo picked us up mid-afternoon at the Guayaquil airport and as soon as I walked out into the sunshine, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased.
It could have been in Miami or Hawaii, for all the lush plants and flowers that greeted me. Our initial drive through the city was an eye-opener, since our previous impression set up a strong contrast with what I saw.
I was incredibly impressed with the beautiful buildings recently built along the riverfront and those across the river over a long bridge that leads to Duran and to Samborondon, where our friend Roberto Baquerizo lives and where we spent several nights with his family.
As we drove, our host spoke positively about his love for this estuarial capital. Guayaquil was named Ecuador’s first national tourist city and is the most visited city in Ecuador by other Ecuadorians.
He also told us of the many rivalries between Guayaquil and Quito—the two cities love to quarrel and put each other down. Guayaquil is considered more powerful, more economically successful, while Quito is the seat of government and more refined and cultural. Guayaquil claims that it earns all the money and Quito spends it!
“People from Quito call us monkeys,” Roberto explained. “They treat us like ladrones (robbers).”
Roberto loves politics and history and he filled us in on Ecuador culture and his version of local history:
October 9, 1820, was Guayaquil’s day of independence from Columbia. Then on November 3, 1820, the city of Cuenca also gained its independence. Spain sent soldiers to Cuenca to crush the rebellion and Guayaquil sent men to help Cuenca in the resistance. Guayaquil was a free state with its own president.
In 1822, Jose de San Martin, the liberator of Argentina, came to Guayaquil and asked for a meeting with Simon Bolivar. He and Bolivar were both generals fighting for Latin America’s independence.
Bolivar had a lover who told him that San Martin was coming to Guayaquil.
“You will lose Guayaquil as a country,” she told Bolivar, “ because San Martin will annex Guayaquil to Peru.” At the time, the city was being sought by both Peru and Columbia. Bolivar wanted to create one government in South America, which he called Gran Columbia.
Bolivar put 700 armed men outside the city and he went inside the city to talk to San Martin. This was the only time the two great leaders met. He forced Guayaquil to be part of the Gran Columbia and San Martin left Guayaquil and retired. (No one really knows what happened at their meeting, but history speculates that Bolivar, as the more flamboyant of the two, was able to persuade San Martin to his way of thinking.)
Many of Guayaquil’s citizens consider Bolivar a traitor. He forced Guayaquil to surrender instead of remaining independent. There is an impressive half-circle monument with white pillars and statues of San Martin and Bolivar near Malecon 2000 by the Guayas River. It is known as La Rotunda.
Guayaquil is very clean now. The city’s last two mayors have been good ones, along with a tough ex-president, and many areas have been refurbished. Roberto parked his SUV and we strolled through Malecon 2000, one of the restored waterfront areas. It is the pride of the city.
We paused to listen to Ecuadorian musicians who could easily be mistaken for North American Indians, since they were dressed in similar costumes, complete with feathered headdresses.
Walking paths meander through lush landscaping and trees, imparting a sense of jungle seclusion. Lovers wander hand-in-hand or lounge on benches. I couldn’t help but take Gary’s hand and give him a kiss! Further on, we climbed part of a former fortress near the Plaza Colon, complete with cannons. Roberto told us that the city had been invaded by pirates, among them Morgan. Such a colorful past!
We were now in Las Penas, a rounded hill crowded with pastel-colored houses and buildings. Formerly part of the original settlement and containing the majority of the city’s historic architecture, this area is now artfully restored, filled with intriguing cobbled streets, homes tucked behind high gates and built into the hillsides, gardens and hidden courtyards.
Painters, artists, cafes, galleries and specialty shops are numerous. They wind uphill along the narrow cobblestones and the buildings have been left mostly unpainted or un-restored, giving them a wonderfully period look.
Families in the area still live behind the shops and the whole hill has been given a new lease on life and is vibrant with commerce and creativity.
“Quimbita” is a café and gallery that was displaying paintings of enormous black women, including one on the ceiling.
After our leisurely stroll through the area we drove across the bridge to Roberto’s house. His neighborhood reminds me of many in the U.S., especially Los Angeles, with its gated and security-guarded entrance, wide streets and manicured lawns. The houses are very impressive.
Roberto’s house features a stunning black and white marble entrance, many fine works of art, including paintings, sculpture and antiques. The 15-year-old house is approximately 8500 square feet with stone columns, wood ceilings, a swimming pool, large covered terrace, large living room and separate den/recreation room with bar, formal dining room and five bedrooms.
The development, which is the most prestigious in the area, is called Rio Grande. Clean and well-guarded, maintenance fees are $130 a month. There are 150 houses, 3 tennis courts, a soccer field, basketball court and a playground for children.
Two of Roberto’s five children still live at home, as well as a niece. Since the home is now too large for them, it’s for sale, and the family plans to build a smaller house on acreage they own nearby. If you are interested, please contact Gary.
The next day Roberto turned us over to one of his employees, Monica, who speaks excellent English, and his chauffer, Johnny, for a tour of the city. It rained most of the day, but we still enjoyed the city’s major sites, including the Iguana Park, or Parque de los Iguanas, with its monument to Bolivar and tall trees absolutely covered with iguanas.
Large numbers of iguanas in all sizes were busy munching and fighting over lettuce leaves. Stand clear of the trees or you could end up with spotted clothes!
Plaza Centenario is one of the largest city parks in Ecuador, covering four square blocks. There is a botanical garden with lots of orchids, a crystal palace near the river where exhibits are held, a Chinese park with bonsai, and boats you can rent to float the lake in front of Parque Forestal.
At night sailboats ply the river, taking revelers to a nearby island to dance and drink. There’s a Maritime and Naval Museum, the Museo Anthropologico y de Arte Contemporaneo, (MAAC). We also saw the unusual Moorish Clock Tower, an ornate remake of one built in 1770.
Tourists come to Guayaquil to visit but don’t stay that long. According to Roberto, one of the reasons for that is because the city is expensive. Mariana recommends Hotel Intercontinental for the best traditional lunch in the city, at $16.
We had lunch at a restaurant recommended by Monica’s mother, and ate large bowls of a very thick seafood soup and a communal dish of vegetables, shrimp and rice, and fruit juice, all for about $5 each.
Hopping a plane from Quito to Guayaquil is easy. . . and cheap. A one-way ticket costs $62.60, and only takes half an hour. The longest part of the trip was waiting in the airport for our delayed flight to take off.
The plane banked right as we followed one, then a second, river further southwest. The two rivers Rio Daule and Rio Babahoyo join to form the bigger Rio Guayas, which then flows around Isla Santay in its center.
Recent flooding has turned the low-lying areas around Guayaquil into a series of lakes that stretch for many miles inland. From the air it seemed as if you could navigate a boat halfway to Quito!
Tuesday morning we boarded our van at 6 a.m. It picked us up at Roberto’s and deposited us in Quito 8 hours later for $18 each. We shared the seat behind the driver. A regular bus from the bus terminal to Quito is $8 and is supposed to also take about 8-10 hours.
Instead of observing the flooding from the air, our return trip involved about 2 hours of driving down the E25 through a landscape still partly inundated with water. The worst flooding was about 10 kilometers south of the town of Babahoyo, where water covered the highway.
Perhaps here the flooding is more permanent or frequent, because most of the flooded houses along the road on both sides had long rickety wooden walkways above the waterline from road to house.
Babahoyo itself is a ramshackle town of blackened concrete, rusty tin roofs and barred windows. Most of the houses were flooded and people were using long, narrow wooden boats or rafts to get around.
We arrived back in Quito tired and worn out from the long trip. Next time we visit Guayaquil I’ll fly both ways, but we wanted to experience the journey on the ground.
Two days is definitely not enough time to explore the many splendors of Guayaquil. Must-sees for our next visit are the Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve and the beautiful three-masted sailboat, “Guayas.”
And then there are the beaches of Salinas to check out next time, Roberto’s family’s favorite hangout. Perhaps we can coax him into letting us borrow their beach house!
Some of Roberto’s recommendations for Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most visited city:
Sucre – gourmet restaurant with international cuisine
Blu – gourmet restaurant
Benedict – Spanish school
Malecon 2000 with Imax Theater