Ecuador ’s largest city has finally begun to stand up as a tourist destination and bury its bad reputation. Dirty and dangerous were two words that used to sum up Guayaquil (pop. 2.3 million), and there was little to offer visitors in the 1990s. This has changed in recent years, however, and while it can hardly rival Quito  in terms of beauty, there is now plenty to keep you busy for a couple of days.
If you’re arriving from the mountains, there’s quite a contrast between Quito’s cool, colonial charms and Guayaquil hot, humid vivacity—it feels like a different country.
Guayaquil sits on the west side of the Río Guayas, formed by the Ríos Daule and Babahoyo (the latter charmingly translates as “dribble hole”). The Guayas empties into the Gulf of Guayaquil, leading to the Pacific, 50 kilometers to the southwest.
The city’s riverside position led to its emergence as Ecuador’s commercial center, with more than half the country’s companies based here, and Guayaquil is now the biggest port on South America’s Pacific coast. Most of the city is only a few meters above sea level, so flooding is common in the rainy season.
Guayaquil has undergone quite a transformation in the past decade and has won a United Nations award for redevelopment. The city’s new promotional line, “Pearl of the Pacific,” may be a typical example of the local tendency to exaggerate, but there’s no denying Guayaquil’s newfound beauty and confidence as a destination.
Arriving at the new airport or bus terminal is far more pleasant than it used to be, the public transportation system includes the new Metrovía trolleybus modeled on Quito’s system, and most importantly, the city center is safer with policed pedestrianized zones.
The tourism centerpiece is the malecón, a three-kilometer promenade along the river Guayas up to the colorful artistic district of Las Peñas. Here you can climb the stairs to the lighthouse at the top and gaze out over an impressive panorama of the city and surrounding countryside. At the bottom of the hill is the city’s latest project, Puerto Santa Ana, lined with restaurants, cafés, luxury apartments, and a marina under construction.
Most Galápagos  tours now come through Guayaquil, boosting its tourism industry; the city’s abundance of top-class hotels and conference facilities suit high-end visitors and businesspeople alike. Be aware, however, that the heat and pollution can certainly affect your sightseeing experience. It’s best to start early or wait until late afternoon, avoiding the fierce midday sun. Weekends are quieter and better for sightseeing, when the city center empties out.
Poverty levels are high in Guayaquil, and crime is a serious issue. Muggings and carjackings (known as secuestros express) are common, although mainly rich Ecuadorians are targeted. Take taxis at night, never take unmarked cabs, and consider using a prebooked service (ask at your hotel for a recommended company). Avoid aimless wandering at any time of day—go directly from place to place, and stay on the main streets in the center.
Guayaquil’s waterfront is the pride of the city and symbol of its redevelopment. In the late 1990s, Mayor León Febres Cordero launched Malecón 2000 (7 a.m. to midnight daily), a hugely ambitious project to completely overhaul the run-down area along the river Guayas. Current mayor Jaime Nebot has continued the work, and the result is an astonishing achievement that has won a United Nations award.
This three-kilometer promenade is by far the biggest attraction in the city, with historic monuments, modern sculptures, museums, botanical gardens, fountains, bridges, children’s play areas, shopping outlets, and restaurants. The cool breezes off the river and the watchful eye of security guards make Malecón 2000 the most relaxing place to spend time in Guayaquil.
The best starting point is La Plaza Cívica at the end of 9 de Octubre. A highlight is La Rotonda, a statue depicting a famous meeting of South America’s two most prominent liberators, José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar. This semicircular statue is Malecón’s most important historical monument and is particularly striking when lit up at night. For light entertainment, stand with a partner at opposite sides of the semicircle and whisper into the pillars to hear your voices carry.
Walk south of La Rotonda past towers dedicated to the four elements. You’ll reach the Guayaquil Yacht Club (free), where there is an attractive three-masted sailboat docked several months of the year. Farther south is the 23-meter Moorish Clock Tower. This is the latest incarnation, built in 1931, of a clock tower that dates back to the 18th century. Just down from the clock tower is the Henry Morgan (afternoon–evening Sun.–Thurs., late-night trips Fri.–Sat., $5), a replica of the famous Welsh pirate’s 17th-century ship. A one-hour trip is a great way to see Guayaquil from the river.
South of this is a rather bland shopping mall, selling mainly modern items rather than artisanal wares, but you may enjoy the opportunity to escape the heat. On the other side is an outdoor food court with cheap restaurants serving fast food and seafood specialties.
Farther south is the quietest part of Malecón 2000, at Plaza Olmedo, with its contemplative monument of José Joaquín de Olmedo (1780–1847), the first mayor of Guayaquil. Beyond that is La Plaza de la Integraciín and a small artisans market. You can cross the road and enter the Bahía black market, but be careful as it can be a dangerous area.
North of La Rotonda is a large children’s playground and exercise area leading to a beautiful set of botanical gardens with more than 300 species of trees and other plants. This is one of the highlights of Malecón 2000, and it’s worth getting lost in the greenery and forgetting you’re in the middle of the city. Above the gardens are 32 transparent panels with the names of more than 48,000 citizens who contributed to the Malecón 2000 project.
North of the botanical gardens is the Museo Guayaquil en La Historia (tel. 4/256-3078, 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily, $2.50), which tells a fascinating history of the city from prehistoric times to the present in 14 dioramas. It’s one of the few museums in Guayaquil where everything is in English, so it’s worth a visit. Above the museum is one of South America’s only IMAX cinemas, with a 180-degree screen. It’s an interesting but rather disorienting experience.
The north end of Malecón 2000 culminates in the Banco Central’s impressive Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporáneo (MAAC, Malecón and Loja, tel. 4/230-9383, www.malecon2000.com/museo.htm , 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sun., $1.50, free Sun.), which has an exhibition on ancient history, a huge collection of pre-Columbian ceramics, and a modern art exhibition.
Further information about Malecón 2000 can be obtained from the Fundación Malecón office (Sargento Vargas 116 at Olmedo, tel. 4/252-4530 or 4/252-4211, www.malecon2000.com ).
Guayaquil’s city center has a dearth of colonial architecture, but the area around the cathedral is the most attractive part. The original cathedral was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1936. This huge white neo-Gothic structure towers over the west side of Parque Bolívar, better known as Parque de las Iguanas.
The centerpiece of the park is an imposing monument of South American liberator Simón Bolívar on horseback, but even Bolívar can’t compete with the sight of dozens of urban iguanas descending from the tall trees to laze around on the grass. Visitors and locals alike flock here to watch these tame lizards, but don’t let their lethargy fool you, as they can run very fast if startled. There’s also a fish pond filled with turtles and a red squirrel, which seems to interest many locals more than the iguanas.
Land: Taxi drivers in Guayaquil are notorious for driving badly and overcharging foreigners. Few of them use meters, so negotiate the price in advance. It’s worth asking at your hotel for the approximate price and then telling the driver, rather than waiting for them to give you an inflated price. As a guide, short journeys around downtown should be about $2, and trips from downtown to the airport, Urdesa, and other northern districts $3–4. Never take unmarked cabs, and if possible, ask your hotel to call you a taxi from a reputable company. Reliable firms include Movisat (tel. 4/259-3333), Fastline (tel. 4/282-3333), and Solservice (tel. 4/287-1195).
The poor traffic situation downtown means that local buses ($0.25) are not really worth it for short distances. Even then, buses are slow and often jam-packed, and pickpockets can be a problem. Bus number 52 goes from the malecón to Urdesa, number 2 goes to the airport, and number 13 goes to the northern malls.
The Metrovía service ($0.25) is cleaner and faster. It’s a good way to get to and from the main bus terminal if you don’t want to take a taxi. Crossing to the Metrovía terminal from the bus terminal is by no means easy, however—you usually need to run across six lanes of traffic. The line runs south from Hospital Luis Vernaza to La Catedral, the most convenient stop for the downtown sights, and then farther south. It returns north from Biblioteca Municipal to Las Peñas and north to the terminal. Note that pickpockets are also a problem on Metrovía, so don’t carry valuables, and be vigilant.
Guayaquil’s new bus terminal is just north of the airport and a huge improvement over the previous dingy terminal. It’s clean, efficient, and doubles as a shopping mall with some of the best prices in the city. Buy your ticket at one of the 80 windows and head up the escalator to the gate to catch your bus. There are departures for just about every city in the country.
Renting a car in Guayaquil is expensive, starting at around $50 per day before insurance, tax, or gasoline. It’s also not recommended, as the standard of driving is atrocious, and the excess charges are alarmingly high. If you really must, major companies at the airport include: Avis (tel. 4/216-9092), Budget (tel. 4/228-8510), Expo (tel. 4/216-9088), Localiza (tel. 800/562-254), Rentauto (tel. 4/390-4520), and Seretur (tel. 4/216-9184). Three of these companies have main offices in the city: Avis (CC Olímpico, Av. Kennedy and Las Américas, tel. 4/228-5498, fax 4/228-5519), Budget (Las Américas 900 at Andrade, tel. 4/228-4559), and Localiza (Francisco Boloña 713, tel. 4/239-5236).
Air: Guayaquil’s award-winning new José J. Olmedo International Airport (Las Américas, tel. 4/216-9000, www.tagsa.aero ) is five kilometers north of the city center. It’s Ecuador’s only international airport besides Quito ’s and has flights to a wide range of North American, South American, and some European destinations. The international departure tax is $28 pp, payable in cash.
Five airlines operate domestic flights. Note that the Quito route is particularly competitive, and you can save a lot with promotions and advance online booking. Fares are sometimes as low as $40 one-way, but last-minute they usually rise to $55–70.
National airline TAME (tel. 800/500-800 or 4/256-0778, www.tame.com.ec ) has the widest range of services. TAME flies to Quito ($60 one-way) 10–12 times daily, to Cuenca  ($66 one-way) three times daily, and to Esmeraldas ($100 one-way) once daily. For Lago Agrio, Macas, and Tulcán  (from $120 one-way), connect via Quito. For the Galápagos , flights to Baltra ($312–355 round-trip) are three times daily, and to San Cristóbal  ($312–355 round-trip), four times a week. Note that only Galápagos residents can buy one-way tickets.
LAN (tel. 800/101-075 or 4/259-8500, www.lan.com ) is sometimes cheaper, offering daily flights to Quito ($61 one-way), Cuenca ($43 one-way), and Baltra ($327 round-trip).
Aerogal (tel. 4/268-7566) flies to Quito and Cuenca ($66 one-way) daily, to Baltra ($337 round-trip) daily, and to San Cristóbal ($337 round-trip) several times a week.
Icaro (tel. 800/883-567 or 4/390-5060) offers some of the cheapest flights to Quito ($50 one-way) daily.
New airline Saereo (tel. 7/293-4104, www.saereo.com ) flies to the southern cities of Machala ($61 one-way) once per week and Loja ($80 one-way) twice per week.