Green Guayaquil


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Text: Ilan Greenfield

Photographs: Jorge Vinueza

Guayaquil has enjoyed a reputation of always prioritizing urban development. Yet some of Ecuador’s most vividly green examples of tropical nature can be found at no distance at all.

Cerro Blanco, one of the country’s best-conserved nature sanctuaries

Luis “Lucho” Verdesoto travels the world as a guide aboard the National Geographic Explorer. He’s been to… well, everywhere (Nat Geo Explorer cruises tour the world’s most fascinating natural destinations). Among his favorite experiences, including Antarctica and Eastern Africa, he speaks of an event that occurred right here, in the Chongón Hills at Cerro Blanco. On a particularly fortunate walk in the more remote portions of this over 6,000 hectare protected forest, Lucho was able to be momentarily part of an entire family of Howler Monkeys domesticity. “Babies came up to me. The entire troupe was curious and apparently totally tame. I’ll never forget it. When I left, I felt it was a revelation. I kept saying to myself, ‘This is Guayaquil.’”

As soon as we advanced a short way along the Canoa Trail, howlers began to greet us with their fantastical, science fiction ‘howls’ (a sound used regularly by horror and adventure film sound editors). Apparently, we are among the last visitors to walk the trail, since the entire visitor’s center and trail system is soon to be displaced further inside the reserve. While in one ear we listen to the contrasting sounds of nature, the other distinguishes the drone of the neighboring Holcim cement factory at work—carving away chunks of the mountainside. Holcim has actually helped support the reserve, but their activities have made the Canoa Trail less of a “nature walk” than it should be. Still, the monkey’s thunderous rumblings continue to seranade us as we depart; still, we see nesting Yellow-rumped Caciques; still, we hear the double-drum of a Guayaquil Woodpecker; still, we spot a White-tailed Jay, seemingly dressed in Guayaquil’s blue-and-white flag.

Over fifty mammal species have been recorded in the park, including jaguars, peccaries, otters and sloths. We walk by the gigantic ceiba trees, with their magnificently voluptuous trunks, in silence. We listen to a trickling creek, visited by thirsty deer. Tarantulas peep out from tiny holes in the ground and miniature frogs flee from our footsteps. And we can’t but repeat Lucho’s revelation: “This is also Guayaquil”.

Many insist Cerro Blanco is located outside of Guayaquil. But that really is only a matter of interpretation. From downtown, it takes the same amount of time to reach the new Samanes Urban Park as it does to reach Cerro Blanco (10-15 minutes), an area where housing developments, schools, even malls, have taken over. Cerro Blanco is—today—as close to the city center as any residential neighborhood. “We sometimes think that Guayaquileños couldn’t care less about nature. But I proved that’s not true,” explains Lucho, “People just don’t know this exists. I actually wrote a blurb about Cerro Blanco in a supplement of Diario El Universo and the next weekend we had over 2,000 visitors! People care, and they would love to know”. Cerro Blanco is an emblem of Guayaquil’s lush, exuberant living world.

Puerto Hondo: up the creek with a paddle

Literally across the highway from Cerro Blanco, Puerto Hondo looks everything like a ramshackle village. The small suburban coastal community, once part of Guayaquil’s rural world, has only recently been sucked in by the modern city’s expansion. You make a u-turn just past Cerro Blanco’s entrance and head back a few meters where a string of food carts and stalls all offer pretty much one dish: sweet plantain with cheese. Take the exit to your right and you’ll see the cars parked by the dozens and people enjoying this simple, yet delicious Guayaquil treat.

A decade ago, that was about all there was here… next to an uneven community football pitch. Today, you must continue onward along the main sideroad, straight until you reach the end. You’ll find convenient parking to your left. At a yellow house behind the parking area, you can rent a kayak for 5 dollars. You’re ready to go.

The best times to experience Puerto Hondo is early, at dawn. Otherwise the place becomes a beachfront hangout for literally everyone and their grandmother (grandmothers are actually a common sight!). Past the public swimming pool and ‘aquatic park’, you’ll reach the riverfront, a natural paradise amidst the mangroves.

As you head out into the estuary, you navigate alongside Cocoi, Little Blue, Tricolored and Striated herons, several species of egrets, spectacular Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis… and if you are lucky enough to coincide with low tide, shorebirds and the aforementioned waders will multiply by the hundreds . . . Keep your eyes peeled for handsome Red-necked Wood-Rails.

Ñan Magazine- Issue 20

Puerto Hondo is the last segment of the massive Estero Salado (Salty Creek), a fascinating mangrove-laden maze that reaches right up into the urban core of Guayaquil, where authorities have created the fabulous Salado Linear Park and Malecón, one of our favorite places in the city, which we will surely revisit in the future.

The estuary is vital to understanding the natural dimension of the city of Guayaquil, and the way Puerto Hondo has been opened further to the public was a stroke of genius by those involved.

Santay: Guayaquil’s green left bank

Guayaquileños have always looked out upon Santay Island as part of the landscape. There is, actually, an almost bizarre looking-glass effect to it, as it peers back at the city with its emerald eyes. A secret garden few have ventured into, Santay is largely unknown and undiscovered. It’s time to jump down the rabbit hole!

Only 800 meters across the river from the massive buildings, banks, promenades, avenues, streets, cars, people, food and animated city life, Santay’s forests gleam green, brimming with birds, iguanas, ocelots, boa constrictors, caiman, hidden mangroves, reed beds, nature galore. We decided to make an adventure of it from the docks of the Caraguay Market.

After a delicious cup of essencia coffee (some of the best concentrate we’ve tasted in the country), we hopped into one of the city’s legendary fishing canoes and asked to be taken across the river. The mainstream tourism routes leave from Malecón 2000’s dock and a brand-new pedestrian bridge has just recently been inaugurated (if nothing else, a most promising government-sponsored opportunity to walk over the amazing Guayas River).

As we navigate across early in the morning, we hear a troop of Red-lored Amazons heading in the other direction, towards the city from their Santay colonies. They will be breakfasting at Cerro Blanco in a couple of minutes. The island is considered one of Ecuador’s Important Bird Areas (a BirdLife International category), with some 150 bird species, including the locally vulnerable Clapper Rail (which could in itself be a separate, endemic species) and Red-masked Parakeet, as well as an impressive total of five species of mangrove.

Once on the island, we visited its eco-village and navigated through the mangrove forests to where herons and egrets wandered. Inland walks through deciduous scrub and secondary woodland rewarded us with sightings of woodpeckers and squirrels. Fascinating adventures await the curious ‘across the way’.

The ride back

We were lucky to visit Santay Island in a not so ordinary fashion, and our private ‘lanchero’ treated us to a most wonderful ride all the way to Puerto Santa Ana, near the river delta that joins the Babahoyo and Daule Rivers and the grand Guayas River. We left the jungles behind and reached the massive skyscrapers, edged past Cerro Santa Ana as people waved back at us from their classic wooden windowpanes. We turned off the motor and eased by with the floating vegetation, waved back at people on the Malecón 2000, felt the breeze hit our faces, we felt excited to be pulled along by the massive coffee-colored artery.

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