Up until recently, tourists know Guayaquil as little more than an inconvenient stop en route to the Galapagos. The bustling port city had a reputation for crime, clutter, and commerce. Eager to change the city’s image, however, the government has given Guayaquil a complete facelift, and the result marks one of the most extensive urban restoration projects in the continent’s history. The result of Guayaquil’s makeover had been a gradual conversion from its former beleaguered reputation to a city now well known for its history, culture, and newfound modernity. From the sparkling new Malecón 2000 to the refurbished Cerro Santa Ana neighborhood, the modern Guayaquil is eager to share its attractions and improved infrastructure with any visitor who gives it a chance.
The city’s first inhabitants arrived 5000 years ago, bearing South America’s first ceramics. Guayaquil remained an indigenous community for nearly 4500 years, until Spanish conquistator Francisco de Orellana arrived at the Santa Ana hills in 1537. Legend has it that a native chief named Guayas and his wife Quil committed suicide before surrendering their loved home to the Spaniards. Their martyrdom inspired the name of what is now the most populous city in Ecuador. Today, Guayaquilenõs are just as proud of the city’s heritage as their Indian ancestors and eager to show it off. First-class restaurants, bumping clubs, shopping malls, and markets intermingle with museums and colorful neighborhoods, making Guayaquil a mix of commerce, class, and culture.
Guayaquil sprawls to the north and south, but the two sq. km that comprise the Centro west of the Rio Guayas are easily navigated. Organized in a rough grid system, avenidas (avenues) run north-south, and calles (streets) go east-west.
9 de Octubre, which runs southeast-northwest through Guayaquil Centro, is the city’s main thoroughfare and the site of many upscale hotels, shops, and fast-food chains. At its easternmost point, 9 de Octubre (named for Ecuador’s Independence Day) intersects with Malecón Simon Bolivar at La Rotonda, a monument honoring Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin, who freed ten South American countries, including Ecuador, from Spanish rule. La Rotunda also marks the mid-point of the beautiful Malecón 2000, a 2.5 km. riverfront walkway flanked by the Mercado Artesanal at its southwesternmost point, and the fascinating Las Penas neighborhood and Cerro Santa Ana to its north. Although the city has become significantly more tourist-friendly over the past three years, exercise caution after dark, especially in the blocks surrounding Parque Victoria.
Just north of Guayaquil Centro lie several quieter ciudadelas (neighborhood). The relatively wealthy areas of Alborada, Kennedy, La Garzota, Los Sauces, and Urdesa don’t offer much history but are replete with expensive, albeit excellent, restaurants, shopping malls, and neuron-jolting nightlife.
Thanks to the government’s extensive efforts to clean up the city’s image, improve its infrastructure, and restore many historic sites, Guayaquil is finding its way onto an increasing number of tourist itineraries. The Centro itself merits a day or two of exploring its museums, monuments, markets, and Malecón. A few more days are well-spent hiking the nearby ecological reserves.
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Along the sidewalks of the Centro, locals frequent the numerous, one-room restaurants whose tables spill out into the streets. These homogenous comedores serve cheap lunches and snacks. Note that price tags do not necessarily reflect food quality. Although many of the pricey hotels in the Centro have fine international dining, don’t overlook the cheap local lunch stops for quick and hearty traditional meals. Also, dozens of fast-food chains line the Malecón 2000.
The eateries in Victor Emilio Estrada in Urdesa are generally more expensive than many Centro options, but several offer delicious food at reasonable prices, and the pricier ones are worth the splurge.
Although it has yet to become a widespread international delicacy, the food of Ecuador will not leave you unsatisfied. The staples of the region are enhanced with delectable spices and careful preparation.
The most common restaurants are small, family-owned diners, referred to as comedores. Unequivocally the most economical way to acquire your daily sustenance and certainly the most popular way to eat out among locals is the menu del dia (meal of the day). Sometimes referred to as el almuerzo (lunch) during the day, la merienda (snack), or la cena (dinner) at night, the menu is a set platter at a set price - usually with two courses, a drink, and various extras. If it doesn’t do the trick, check out the menu for a la carte selections. To diversity your diet, you may decide to dine at three other types of restaurants. Chifas (Chinese restaurants), present in even the smallest of towns, are generally clean and serve tasty and filling chaufas (fried-rice dishes). Cevicherias serve seafood, especially ceviche (or cebiche), a popular dish made from raw seafood marinated in lemon and lime juice (whose acids partly cook the meat), with cilantro and onion. Pollerias serve scrumptious pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken). Larger and more touristed cities also offer all the fast food, international food, and vegetarian options.
The more adventurous might try tronquito (bull penis) and yaguariocro (soup with blood-sprinklings) - two of Ecuador’s most exotic dishes. Equally shocking to foreigners is cuy (guinea pig). This specialty, dating back to Inca times, gets its name from the sound the animal makes just before getting skewered and roasted: “cuy, cuy, cuy…” More vegetarian-friendly llapingachos (Andean potato and cheese pancakes) also date back centuries: the root was first cultivated in the Andes before becoming a starch staple around the world. Other veggie delights include banana and plantain dishes, which are mainstays of the costeno (coast-dwellers) diet. Patacones (deep-fried plantain slices) compliment the Ecuadorian favorite, ceviche. Other common dishes include encebollado, and fritada. The former is a soup, also known as languriango, made with yellow fin tuna and yucca. The latter is delectable fried pork. Breakfast (desayuno) is offered in most comedores, though it is usually light. Most common are bread, juice, coffee, eggs, and sometimes rice and beans, as well as plantain dishes such as chirriados in certain regions. Highly touristed areas may offer a desayuno americano, which includes a bit more food for the more voracious appetite. If you don’t mind a light breakfast (or want a midday snack), a quick and easy way to grab a bite is to buy fruit at the local mercado (market) or visit a panaderia (bakery).
Fruit juices abound in Ecuador - the Oriente boasts naranjilla (a bitter-sweet orange-like fruit), tomate de arbol, mora (blackberry), guanabana, maracuya, and papaya juice galore. Coffee is not as good as it should be; it is usually served as esencia (boiled-down, concentrated grinds mixed with water or milk). You might also be served hot water with a can of instant coffee. Mate de coca (coca tea) is a good cure for altitude sickness, and a local specialty. A favorite dairy drink is yogur, a combination of milk and yogurt. And then there’s beer. Two regional favorites are Pilsner and Club. For a sweeter buzz, try canelazo (or canelito), a combination of boiled water, sugar cane alcohol, lemon, sugar, and cinnamon. Many drinks are made from aguardiente, a potent sugarcane alcohol. And of course, there’s the omnipresent Chichas, made from yucca and fermented with the saliva of the women who brew it. Look for it in houses that fly white or red flags over their doors. Non-alcoholic chichas (also non-saliva) come in myriad varieties throughout the region and are occasionally served straight out of a plastic bag.
Unless urgent visits to the nearest restroom are your idea of fun, avoid drinking tap water. Water advertised as purificada (purified) may have only been passed through a filter, which does not necessarily catch all diarrhea-causing demons. Water that has been boiled or treated with iodine is safe to drink; otherwise, bottled water is best. Watch out for refrescos and other water-based juices, and freshly-washed fruit. Also use bottled water when brushing teeth.
Guayaquil’s serious disposition is abandoned during its festivals. While national holidays send locals packing to the beach, city festivals are celebrated at home. July is an exciting month, with Simon Bolivar’s birthday on July 24 and the anniversary of the city’s founding on the following day. Both involve parades, concerts, fireworks, and beauty pageants. Guayaquil’s Independence Day on October 9 is celebrated in conjunction with El Dia de La Raza (October 12) in Durán, across Rio Guayas. Guayaquilenõs join forces with hundreds of other South Americans in the annual Feria de Durán, one of the continent’s largest celebrations with inexpensive handicrafts, live music, and cultural dances Guayaquil’s New Year’s Eve festivities are especially unique. In addition to the ubiquitous fireworks display, Guayaquilenõs ring in the New Year by burning Anos Viejos, life-size dolls resembling well-known local and international personalities. This annual ritual symbolizes the old year’s completion and the commencement of the new.
As the saying goes, spend your days in Quito and your nights in Guayaquil. Unlike the tourist-packed clubs of Atacames and Quito, going out in Guayaquil is a local affair. Clubs and discos in the Centro light the sky in shade of neon until dawn on the weekends, but many downtown areas are dangerous at night, so nightlife should be explored with caution. A better option is to hit clubs and bars outside the town center, which generally attract a younger crowd. Many hotspots lie in Kennedy Mall, opposite Mall del Sol in Kennedy Norte; along Victor Emilio Estrada in Urdesa; on Francisco de Orellano in Kennedy Norte; and in Centro Comercial Alban Borjain Alborada.
Foreign visitors are often shocked by the machismo in some parts of Latin America. Women in bars - and foreign women in general - are often regarded as promiscuous. Females who drink and act rowdy - or even just express their opinions in a public setting - will shock men who expect and prize meekness in women. Whether you’re male or female, be sensitive to rising testosterone levels. Never say anything about a man’s mother, sister, wife, or girlfriend.
Personal hygiene and appearance are often difficult to maintain while traveling but they are very important in Ecuador. Close-cropped, clean-shaven men and women who don’t show much skin will receive more respect than scruff mop-heads or bra-less women. Men should remove hats while indoors.
Latin Americans hold politeness in high esteem, among both acquaintances and strangers. When meeting someone for the first time, shake hands firmly, look the person in the eye, and say “Mucho gusto de conocerle” (“Pleased to meet you”). When entering a room, greet everybody, not just the person you came to see. Females often greet each other a peck on the cheek or a quick hug. Sometimes men shake hands with women in a business situation, but the standard greeting between a man and a woman - even upon meeting for the first time - is a quick kiss on the cheek. Salutations are considered common courtesy in small towns. “Buenos dias” in the morning, “buenas tardes” after noon, and “buenas noches” after dusk should be said to anyone with whom you come into contact. It is also customary to say “buen provecho” (“enjoy your meal”) to those with whom you fine.
When signaling for people, don’t use one finger pointed upward; simply motioning with your hand in a sweeping motion is more polite. The American “OK” symbol ( a circle with the thumb and forefinger) is considered vulgar and offensive. Spitting is perfectly acceptable in this region - but beware of the burp, as it is considered rude in public.
Punctuality isn’t as important in Peru as it is in Europe and the US (as bus schedules will quickly confirm), but there are, of course, limits. A different perspective on time is apparent during meals, which are rarely hurried. After a big meal, enjoy the ingenious tradition of siesta, a time in the afternoon when it’s just too hot to do anything but relax, have a drink, or nap; don’t expect much to happen during the mid-afternoon, as banks and shops often shut their doors.
Be sensitive when taking photographs. If you must take pictures of locals, first ask permission - they may object strongly to being photographed, and if they don’t, they may ask for a tip.