As the gateway to The Galapagos, where every flight from the mainland begins or ends, it was easy to overlook Guayaquil on our way to see the enchanted islands. But upon our return to the mainland we had the good fortune to take a look around Ecuador's largest city.
This place, where the Guayas River meets the Pacific, has been an important sea port since before the Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana arrived in 1538 and bestowed the catchy little title Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de Guayaquil upon it. Even though Most Noble and Most Loyal City of St. James of Guayaquil does have a certain ring to it, over the ensuing centuries the name got shortened. Sign painters throughout the land celebrated.
Since we were staying downtown, that was the obvious area to focus our explorations. Guayaquil is a modern major metropolitan city of nearly four million, so there are plenty of glass and steel skyscrapers, but there are also plenty of fantastic old buildings with classic Spanish, Italian and French influenced architecture.
In the middle of all the hustle and bustle we came to a lovely small park in front of the cathedral and got a big surprise. Known by several names, El Parque Seminario, or Plaza Bolívar, because of the statue of the independence fighter Simón Bolívar in the center, it is best known as el Parque de las Iguanas, the iguana park.
Why? Because right in the center of the city hundreds of iguanas have laid claim to this tiny plot of land. They are so thick that we had to be careful not to step on them.
This is the oldest park in the city, and it looks like some of the resident iguanas may have been around for the entire three hundred years of its existence, but no one seems to know how or why they are here.
A couple rangers kept watch to discourage any iguana shenanigans, tail pullings or thefts, and one of them even gave Veronica a chance to feed one of the giant lizards. Now our Spanish may be no muy bueno, but we were pretty sure that the sign behind her said "don't feed the animals." Perhaps we missed the part explaining "unless assisted by a ranger."
Just a few blocks from the park we came to the river and turned to walk along the Malecón 2000. The new riverwalk converted the old, funky waterfront into a Guayaquil's main gathering place. Lush gardens, fountains, and historical monuments are spread along the mile and a half walkway that teems with visitors, both locals and tourists, day and night. The crowds have in turn attracted a number of restaurants, bars, and shops revitalizing the entire area.
Beginning at the Torre Morisca, or Moorish Tower, we turned north and headed toward Cerro Santa Ana, the hill covered with brightly colored houses a mile or so off in the distance. While we walked we noticed a strange thing happening, the river was flowing uphill, away from the sea and back toward the mountains. The explain at ion was not supernatural though, just the tide pushing its way several miles inland.
On our way along the malecón we couldn't miss La Rotonda, the monumental monument that commemorates the 1822 meeting in Guayaquil of the liberators José de San Martín from Argentina and Simón Bolívar from Venezuela, when plans for South American independence were laid out.
But the highlight of our walk around Guayaquil had to be Las Peñas, the neighborhood on Cerro Santa Ana. Santa Ana Hill is in the oldest part of the city, and the stairs leading up the hill have become a community all to itself. We must say, one of the most intriguing quarters of any city we have ever come upon.
The buildings along the stone staircase are all recently refurbished, so the little homes, restaurants, and shops gleamed in brightly colored freshness, while children played up and down the steps, and folks milled about chatting or grabbing a bite to eat down every little alley.
The vibrant barrio kept us completely enthralled until, before we knew it, we were at the top of the steps... all 444 of them! Up there we found a small chapel and a lighthouse, but mainly the reward of a full 360 degree panoramic view of the entire city just as the sun was setting. Sometimes our timing just seems to work out.
Scurrying back down the stairs, in a race against darkness, we took a moment at the bottom to absorb the last drop of daylight and stroll up the historic street Numa Pompillo Llona for a block or two. But soon the shadows on the cobblestones told us it was time to drag our tired feet back to the hotel.
They had covered a lot of ground, ground that we were glad we hadn't overlooked.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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