We begin our exploration of Guayaquil at its oldest urban park, which was originally the city’s main Plaza de Armas, later Plaza de la Estrella (named after an eight-pointed stone star constructed here), and which today goes by no less than three different names: Parque Bolívar, because of its centerpiece statue depicting the Libertador himself; Parque Seminario (its official name) because Mr. Seminario financed its fencing, statue and iron gazebo in the late 1800s; and Parque de las Iguanas, because hundreds of bright green iguanas have inherited the gated square, apparently created to emulate a park in Paris.
There are few urban nooks quite as exotic as Parque Seminario, where the presence of pigeons is overshadowed by countless lime-colored iguanas up to a meter long (you also have a curious pond with turtles on the south side). Children are completely enthralled upon spotting the first few (adults are no less impressed), coming up to the animals to get a snapshot or just stare at their spectacular faces. For others, leaning back on a bench and observing these creatures and their interaction with each other and with the park’s human contingency beats watching TV.
The fact that just behind us, to the west, we find Guayaquil’s main Cathedral tells us just how historically important the park actually is.
It was once the axis of the so-called new city, to which early Colonial Guayaquil was forced to move into in the 1690s.
At the very top of the temple, a statue of Christ blesses the riverside portion of Guayaquil with a half-raised hand. This isn’t a church-oriented town: the many city-wide fires that leveled and transformed it throughout its history are to blame. But this refurbished construction, its dimensions, beautiful stain-glass windows and interior marble altar, are impressive, nonetheless. To the north, at Almacenes Fierro, you can find Guayaquil’s famous guayaberas, light and elegant cotton button-down shirts. To the east, toward the river, rises the Hotel Continental and its restaurant, La Canoa, for classic Guayaquil fare including a popular mash-up of hometown dishes called “Bandera” (Flag).
Walking down Clemente Ballén takes you to what used to be called Plaza Sucre, a small square nestled amidst the street grid, recently converted into a four-block pedestrian walkway and renamed Plaza de la Administración. Here, a successful effort was made to liven up and prettify the area surrounding the city’s main administration buildings – City Hall and the Governor’s Palace – both competing for sightseeing points, with their massive columns, gargoyles and domes. As we mentioned before, there aren’t many heritage buildings remaining in Guayaquil, but those that have survived make up for the lack thereof.
Smack-in-the-middle of these grand constructions lies what many regard as Ecuador’s most daunting urban sculpture, The Forge of Vulcan, which depicts Guayaquil’s Independence struggle from Spain. You can stand in front of larger-than-life poet/Independence leader José Joaquín de Olmedo (“he who holds the key to Independent Guayaquil”) and two rows of the local instigators who fought in the uprisings against the Spanish.
Along the northwest edge of the square, escape the bustle of the streets by entering the Nahim Isaías Museum, with its 2,500-strong collection of Colonial art pieces. As you head south behind the Municipal Palace, don’t miss a string of old Guayaquil homes with their classic wooden shutters. Very few of these remain.
Take Calle Pichincha to reach the bustling commercial hub of La Bahía, or The Bay, in English. But before entering the market, a block before, head west on Sucre to the interesting Municipal Museum, known for its grisly selection of Amazonian shrunken heads and other heri-tage pieces, including Guayaquil’s Declaration of Independence.
All along the watchtower: Guayaquil’s Little Big Ben
Let’s just say, figuratively, that the pretty clock tower of Malecón 2000 came from the same shop as the Big Ben, brought in from London in 1841 (the bell) and 1842 (the clock). The mechanism, powered by a pendulum’s incessant push-and-pull with gravity, has apparently never stopped making its ticker tick. Vicente Rocafuerte, one of Guayaquil’s most influential political figures, requested the piece replace Guayaquil’s first public clock, a Belgian antiquity from 1732 that stopped working when it was carelessly trans-ported to City Hall (1808). The new clock was able to withstand several relocations, several fires, and the whim of architects and councils who kept favoring its placement on ever-higher structures, so that more Guayaquileños could see the time. One of the fanciest versions fell over. The ‘Moorish’ tower on which the clock stands today, was inaugurated in 1931. Every 12 hours, Manuel Terranova comes by to do maintenance work. He learned every aspect of its system from his father, Alberto, who learned all he had to know from his father, Manuel. This third-generation public-clock master says, jokingly, that he’d be glad to head to London, if, by any chance, Big Ben needed a tweak, he’d know what to do.
La Bahía is a large street market created back when the informal trading that once took place along the river was pushed into the city proper. Much of the produce is piled high and sold cheap, with stacks of soccer jerseys, electrical appliances, cell phones, and even belts… you get the feeling you can find everything and anything here. To leave this dizzying maze, head east whenever you get a chance. If you walk north along Villamil, crossing the street, you’ll finally feel the breeze washing in from the Río Guayas and have reached what most Guayaquileños puff up their chests about: the riverside promenade known as the Malecón 2000.
Malecón – Las Peñas – Puerto Santa Ana
The last section of the Malecón 2000 project to be completed was its southernmost point, reached by leaving La Bahía and crossing Avenida Simón Bolívar towards the food courts. An ample ramp, lined with an attractive series of tall lampposts, takes us south to the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). Along the way, notice a peculiar statue of the same poet, José Joaquín de Olmedo, we saw at the Forge of Vulcan sculpture, this time sitting on a chair, looking out over the river’s horizon for inspiration. Behind him, as a backdrop, notice some vintage housing on the far right, a beautiful park with enormous trees straight ahead, and to the right, the exclusive Club de La Unión headquarters.
Much like a bridge, the ramp arrives at the Palacio de Cristal’s esplanade, a wonderful early 20th-century, French-made wrought iron market, today used to host a variety of cultural and social events.
To the west of the structure, Jesuit-run San José Church might catch your eye, while marking the very end of the Malecón, an artisanal market offers a few coastal artesanías, although Andean specialties from Otavalo prevail.
Since we’ve started at the southern end, why not take the entire stroll north, skirting the edges of the spectacular river that lies at the very heart of the city’s history. Depending on the water level, small silt-born beaches may emerge at the foot of the breakwater, where elegant egrets stand impassively erect before flying off. You might also notice the clumps of vegetation floating past, which some hold up as evidence of how continental life could have reached the Galapagos Islands, some one thousand kilometers distant.
Shiver me timbers!
During five days in 1709, pirate Woodes Rogers and his crew “sojourned” in Guayaquil , taking their sweet old time to loot the city’s every house (including the tombs of the cemetery), taking with them the 400-ton Saint Vincent. English-Dutch George d’ Hout and his men, in April 1687, also assaulted the city for the day, burned much of it to the ground, taking about 600 hostages, among them high society dames and men of rank, some of which they killed, other which they took out to Puná Island. The authorities in Guayaquil organized an effective attack later in the week, and were finally able to expel the pirates five days later. Another infamous assault was led by Jacques L’ Heremite, who set fire to the city, was repulsed, but who then jumped ashore to wreak further havoc. In the end, Guayaquil did relatively well against pirate attacks, successfully repelling most, while avoiding privateers like Drake and Morgan who never ventured to these shores. At the foot of Barrio Las Peñas you’ll find the Fortín monument, a tribute to Guayaquil’s valiant defense against the notorious pirates of centuries past.
And yet another interesting fact is that the river flows in both directions depending on the tide… But, come to think of it, it makes sense that the world’s largest ocean would be powerful enough to push and pull the Río Guayas’ voluptuous waters at whim.
We’ve already mentioned many of the promenade’s attractions during our visit last year to Guayaquil for our Ñan 6 issue. But this set-piece tourism attraction doesn’t disappoint the repeat visitor, with its statues, monuments and spectacular strangler figs, its classic Guayaquil dishes to taste, shops to peruse, and museums in which to learn more about the city’s truths and myths. But, at the end of the day, what lingers most in the mind, apart from the river itself, is the pleasure of sharing this grandiose public space with the humble families, enamorados (lovebirds) leaning on the railings and quirky street vendors, who inevitably personify the warmth of the city and its people.
Before reaching the colorful hill that dominates the far end of the Malecón – the historic Las Peñas neighborhood – you can head west (or left) on Calle Loja, towards the city’s bar and nightclub district; but during the day it is quiet. Three-and-a-half blocks in, you’ll find the largest artisanal market in Ecuador. Turning right just before, on Rocafuerte, will take you to Santo Domingo Church, the city’s oldest. Across the street, don’t miss the Firefighter’s Museum (Museo de los Bomberos), with its fire trucks over a century old and tales of the city’s inferno-scarred history.
From here, you can cross the street again, and head up Barrio Las Peñas, also known as Cerro Santa Ana. Las Peñas is the historic neighborhood from where the original city once grew. In the mid-1900s, many a poet and artist lived here, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is rumored to have hung out for a while, selling books and inciting the youths to rebellion.
By the end of the century, the neighborhood was dilapidated and run down. The authorities decided to fix up a visitors’ area and create a 444-step staircase to reach the top of the hill, where a chapel and lighthouse were built in 2002 and a spectacular 360° vantage point of the city became accessible. All along the walk up, the way is lined by a series of tiendas (grocery stores), while arts-and-crafts stores, bars and karaoke joints cluster mainly along the lower segment. Houses are painted in bright colors and spectacular views of the river peek between walls and trees.
Don’t miss on the Malecón 2000
Embark on iconic Guayaquil sailboat, the Pirata Morgan.
Discover Santay from the Naval Club dock.
Monumento a los Libertadores (La Rotonda)
Hop on the modern, comfortable Discovery.
Discover a miniature Guayaquil at the Naval Museum.
Visit the impressive MAAC facilities for an inspiring view of art and culture in Ecuador.
Back at river-level, take the small cobblestone street heading north (Numa Pompillo Llona), one of the most characterful in the city. It’s lined with typical coastal houses from the past with their handsome wooden, louvered shutters, today home to galleries, artist workshops, popular La Paleta bar-lounge and other hangouts.
The walk further north takes you to Puerto Santa Ana, the newest addition to the city’s amazing riverside redevelopment of the last two decades. The area was formerly occupied by a local beer company’s factories and headquarters. Wander through the maze of state-of-the-art buildings, one of Guayaquil’s most upscale residential quarters… Visit the Popular Music Museum (a.k.a. Julio Jaramillo Museum), or the Astillero Football Museum, or wander along the most exclusive and shadowed area this side of the river, represented and exemplified by the nearby tornillo (screw) building, a recent architectural addition that is quickly becoming an icon of Guayaquil’s skyline.