While it once had a less-than-stellar reputation (and in a sense still does – I get strange looks every time I tell people that I enjoyed my stay), Guayaquil is growing as a city and a tourist destination. A lot of work has been done to improve its appeal and I would encourage travellers to take a few days to explore and enjoy this vibrant city, rather than just using it as a pitstop on the way to the Galapagos Islands or other Ecuadorian cities. Here are my top things to do while staying in Guayaquil.
Visit the Cathedral and other Churches in the city
Ecuador, like Peru, has immaculate and gorgeous churches and cathedrals. Guayaquil’s Cathedral is an absolutely stunning piece of architecture; it towers over the nearby buildings, its exterior decorated with exquisite carvings and statues. The vast interior is decorated with statues and beautifully detailed stained-glass windows. It’s free to enter and well-worth a visit.
We also managed to check out the Iglesia San Francisco, which is near the Malecon 2000, and the Iglesia San Francisco. Both are stunning churches inside and out; murals, intricately detailed altar pieces, towering columns and domes, immaculate paintwork, and beautifully rendered statues can be found between the two. There are many more churches in Guayaquil; if you find yourself near one and have the change to go in and have a look, take it.
See the Iguanas in the Parque Seminario
Opposite the Cathedral, Parque Seminario is known locally as ‘Parque de las Iguanas,’ because of the MANY iguanas that have called it home since early colonial times. Walking through the park you will come across iguanas lounging under benches, basking in the sun on the grass, and ambling along the foothpaths. It’s a fantastic experience to be around so many of them, especially as they aren’t concerned by human presence. They’re happy to have their photos taken, although you should always remember that they are still wild animals and their docile demeanour could suddenly change.
Also in the park there’s a large artificial pond where small turtles and large fish can be found mingling, while iguanas lounge around the edge. In the centre is a memorial statue to Simon Bolivar, and at opposite ends of the park there is a statue of boars wrestling, and the ‘roundabout,’ a large metal domed bandstand which offers shade and a place to sit and rest.
Explore the Plaza de la Administracion
Walking towards the river from the Parque Seminario will take you to Administration Square, a beautiful open space full of statues, beautiful fountains and impressive buildings, including the Municipality and the Governor’s Palace. It’s well worth taking a few moments to walk around the square and its buildings; in the courtyard of one you can find a stunning monument to the indigenous people of the country, while in the square there’s an impressive set of sculptures commemorating the Forge of Vulcan. There are some art museums nearby; we wandered into one which housed some modern art and a highly impressive religious art exhibition focusing on the life and crucifixion of Jesus.
Take a stroll along the Malecon 2000
The Malecon 2000 is a large walkway along the River Guayas; it is a stunning piece of architecture, along which you will find tower viewpoints you can climb, statues and sculptures both beautiful and silly, small green areas with trees, water fountains and benches, docked boats and tall ships, places to eat and shop, and the Malecon Gardens. It’s a great way to spend a few hours admiring the art, watching the boats on the river, doing some shopping, or simply grabbing a seat on a bench and watching the world go by.
Word of Advice: there is another Malecon at the other end of town. I would not recommend visiting it unless you literally have nothing else to do; it’s small, as is the park connected to it, and there’s not much to see.
Walking through Barrio Las Peñas and up to the Lighthouse
If you continue walking North on the Malecon 2000, you will find yourself at the entrance to Las Peñas; this is the first street of Guayaquil, and is where the city was born. This area is also one of the only remaining places where colonial architecture can be found. The neighbourhood can be spotted from miles away in the city – the colourful collection of houses are an unmistakable splodge on the hillside.
Walking through the area is like taking a step back in time; the streets are cobbled, winding and narrow, while houses of all colours loom overhead, showing off their beautiful balconies and window frames.
While walking through Las Peñas, you can find the Cerro Santa Ana, which is the starting point of the 444 steps that lead up to the lighthouse and naval museum. The steps are numbered so you can easily measure your progress and along the way you will find lots of galleries, cute cafes and restaurants – great places to take a break if the steps get too much! At the top of the steps you will find the beautifully painted lighthouse and naval museum. You’ll also have a fantastic view of the city – a great place for pictures.
Visit the Museo de Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneo
The Museo de Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneo, or MAAC, is found in the complex of buildings at the north end of the Malecon 2000. A variety of temporary exhibitions are housed there; when we visited (November 2016) there was an exhibition on Inca and pre-Inca cultures, their artefacts, ways of life, and cultures (no photos allowed unfortunately), and an exhibition of contemporary art (photos allowed, which was brilliant!). Admission was free, but depending on the exhibitions, sometimes it can cost a couple of dollars to enter. I would definitely recommend checking this museum out – the exhibitions were well set-up and really interesting, and the staff were friendly and helpful.
Word of warning: when we visited we went to the door marked ‘Entrada,’ which we came to straight from the Malecon. This door was locked and no one was around; when we went down the stairs and around the corner we found another door that was the actual entrance to the museum, so be aware of that.
Grab a drink and enjoy the nightlife at Santa Ana Port
From the north end of the Malecon 2000, you can also walk to Santa Ana Port; this is a very pretty touristic area where you will find lots of restaurants and bars, and nice areas for walking. It’s very pretty at night when it’s all lit up, and is a great place to sit back and relax with a drink.
Browse the shops and stalls in the Mercado Artesanal
From the north end of the Malecon walk up Calle Loja – after a few minutes you will find yourself at the Artisanal Market; a collection of bustling stalls and shops gathered within a large warehouse-like space. It’s both easy and enjoyable to lose yourself while wandering through its labyrinth of wares from beautiful paintings, to hats and clothes, to religious iconography – provided you don’t mind every vendor you pass doing their utmost to get you to buy something from them. There is a large number of products available, and normally you will find the same type of craft in multiple stalls, so if there’s something in particular you’re looking for make sure you look around the entire market to get the best deal, and don’t be afraid to haggle!
Cycle around Isla Santay
Isla Santay is an island in the middle of the River Guayas which has been classified as an ecological reserve. Out of the seven types of Mangrove that exist in the world, five types can be found on the island. It contains many species of birds, crabs and other animals, and even houses a crocodile reserve which you can visit. To get there you need to take the metrobus ($0.25) going south to Barrio Centenario; from there you can walk to the entrance of the island. It’s free to enter the island, you just have to sign in and you need to have ID with you. You can walk or cycle around the island – I would definitely recommend cycling as it can be a bit of a long and boring walk, especially with how hot and humid it can be on the island. You can rent bikes from inside the entrance for $4 for three hours.
Once across the bridge there are two paths going in opposite directions; pick one, cycle down it, then at the end turn around, cycle back and go down the other path. Apparently there are plans to join the paths up to create a loop, but I don’t know when that’s supposed to be done. Taking the paths to the right will take you to the community of people that live and work on the island, the visitor centre, small museum and crocodile reserve. Taking the path to the left will take you along a nature-filled route along which you can catch sites of different birds and water fowl, and hear all sorts of strange noises from the local wildlife. At the end of that path there is another bridge connecting to another part of the mainland; the guard will not let you cross with the rented bikes.
Word of Warning: the bus stops for the metro are not labelled at all, so you need to count how many stops you should be going to make sure you get off the right one. We had a few back and forths before we finally got it right! The island gets very busy at the weekends with locals, so you’re best going on a weekday if possible.
Take a break in the Parque del Centenario
Located in the centre of the city, the Parque del Centenario is a large open space full of trees, gardens, statues, water fountains, and many benches and places to sit. There are numerous types of trees including mango trees – take care during the summer because the ripe fruit falls to the ground/grass and on top of anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in the wrong place (seriously, I was sitting down on a bench and when I stood up a mango fell on the spot where my head had been only seconds before!). The park is the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon relaxing with a good book, or lounging on a bench watching the world go by.
Watch out for the many, many naked statues that grace the various entrances to the park, and the hilarious signs demonstrating how to sit on the park benches; clearly the way to achieve “maximum relaxation.”
Keep your eyes peeled for street art
There are many examples of art to be found while wandering the streets of Guayaquil, from beautiful murals on the sides of buildings, to statues around water fountains, on buildings, and in the middle of the foot path. My favourite pieces were the statues found in seemingly random places on the foot path, including a photographer and a man selling crabs. The prospect of finding art turns every walk into an exciting exploration into the culture of the city, and truly brings beauty and vibrancy to this bustling metropolis.
Bonus Challenge: from the bus terminal and airport the back of a large white statue of a man and woman can be seen – what the front looks like I have no idea as I never got to the right place to see it. As we drove to the main part of the city we also passed a number of other statues including an extremely large monkey. We didn’t have the time to figure out how to get out to them to get some photos, but it would be a fun way to spend a few hours tracking down the perfect viewing spot for these out of the way pieces of art.
Guayaquil has a lot to offer travellers willing to give it a chance; there you can find art, culture, beautiful areas to walk, sit, relax, or lose yourself in exploring tiny neighbourhoods from another era, and opportunities to hunt down the perfect hand-made piece of craft to remind you of your travels. I hope that when you’re planning your Ecuador itinerary you give yourself a few days to get to know and fall a little bit in love with this city like I did.