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Sights in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s Largest City

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.

Botanical gardens at Malecón 2000. Photo © Robert Lerich/123rf.
Botanical gardens at Malecón 2000. Photo © Robert Lerich/123rf.

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, 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).

Las Peñas and Cerro Santa Ana

The north end of Malecón 2000 connects conveniently with the colorful artistic district of Las Peñas. This is the oldest neighborhood in Guayaquil and has the largest concentration of colonial architecture. Like the waterfront, this area used to be run-down and dangerous but has been completely regenerated in recent years, with freshly painted colonial balconies and security guards. The main draw is the climb up 444 steps past cafés and art galleries. You may work up a sweat, so come early in the morning, or even better, in the early evening, and then stay for a drink in the many alluring bars. At the top is an open-air museum, Museo El Fortín del Santa Ana (free), which has original cannons and replicas of Spanish galleons. There is also a small chapel and lighthouse, which can be climbed for fabulous views over the city, Guayas estuary, and Santay Island to the east.

As well as climbing the hill, you can also walk around to the right of the steps along the cobbled street called Numa Pompilio Llona, named after the Guayaco who wrote Ecuador’s rousing national anthem. There are several art galleries and the city’s most interesting bar, La Paleta.

Puerto Santa Ana

At the northern end of Numa Pompilio Llona, the old district blends into the ultramodern Puerto Santa Ana, the city’s latest grand project. Here, shops, cafés, and luxury apartments line the riverside, and a large marina is currently under construction. There are three museums at the entrance to the riverside walkway. The museum on the ground floor, currently under construction, is dedicated to fútbol (soccer) and specifically to Guayaquil’s two major teams, Barcelona and Emelec. Upstairs, the second floor is divided into two museums.

On the left is Museo de la Música Popular Guayaquileña Julio Jaramillo (tel. 9/553- 1966, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–5 p.m. Wed.–Sat., free), dedicated to Guayaquil’s most famous musician. The museum tells the story of the development of the city’s music scene in the early 20th century with original gramophones and instruments, and there is a biography of Jaramillo and his broken-hearted songs of love and loss. Julio Jaramillo died of liver cirrhosis at 42, so it’s fitting that next door is a museum dedicated to the history of brewing, Museo Pilsener (tel. 9/553-196610, a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–5 p.m. Wed.–Sat., free). The country’s first and enduringly popular pilsner was actually launched by a Czech immigrant, Francisco Bolek, in 1913.

Parque de las Iguanas (Parque Bolívar)

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.

An iguana perching on the back of a park bench.
At the Parque de las Iguanas. Photo © Windell Oskay, licensed Creative Commons Attribution. Read about Windell’s visit to the park and see more photos at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.

Museo Municipal

One block southwest of the Parque de las Iguanas is the Museo Municipal (tel. 4/259-9500, Sucre and Chile, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat., free). This is one of the oldest museums in Ecuador and probably the best in the city. The Pre-Hispanic room has fossils, including the tooth of a mastodon dating back 10,000 years, plus sculptures from Ecuador’s oldest civilization, the Valdivia, and a huge Manteña funeral urn. In the colonial section, there is a model of colonial Guayaquil and original cannons and muskets. Don’t miss the room of portraits of Ecuadorian presidents upstairs, nicknamed “the room of thieves” by many locals. There are five shrunken heads on display in a closed room upstairs, which can only be viewed on guided tours. Free English tours are recommended because all the exhibitions are in Spanish.

Plaza de la Administración and Vicinity

A few blocks east of Parque de las Iguanas toward the malecón is a pleasant pedestrianized zone around Plaza de la Administración, dominated by the grand buildings of the local government and a monument to Mariscal Sucre. Most impressive is the Renaissance-style Palacio Municipal, whose Corinthian columns support an arched interior passage covered by a glass ceiling. To the north is Museo Nahim Isaias (Pichincha and Clemente Ballén, tel. 4/232-4182, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sat., $1.50), which houses a well-presented collection of colonial paintings, sculptures, and artifacts.

9 de Octubre and Plaza Centenario

Avenida 9 de Octubre carves its way through central Guayaquil from the Malecón del Salado past Parque Centenario to Malecón 2000. It’s an impressive walk, although the traffic and heat can have an impact on the experience. The highlight along 9 de Octubre is Plaza San Francisco, three blocks from the malecón and dominated by the Iglesia San Francisco. Here you can relax by the large fountain and statue of Pedro Carbo.

Central Guayaquil’s largest square lies in the middle of 9 de Octubre between the two malecóns. The focal point is the Monument to the Heroes of Independence, with four statues representing heroism, justice, patriotism, and history. On the west side is the Casa de la Cultura (tel. 4/230-0500), with an impressive collection of art and archaeology. Farther west toward Malecón del Salado is Museo Presley Norton (9 de Octubre and Carchi, tel. 4/229-3423, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., free). This new museum houses a small exhibition on “Life and customs of the settlers of ancient Ecuador” and is named after a pioneering Ecuadorian archaeologist who died in 1993.

Malecón del Salado and Vicinity

A junior version of Malecón 2000 at the opposite end of 9 de Octubre, Malecón del Salado is named after the tributary of the river Guayas that it straddles. Citizens bathed here in the late 19th century, but it’s too dirty nowadays. The pleasant walkway that undulates up and down bridges makes for a pleasant stroll, however, and if you work up an appetite, there is a cluster of good seafood restaurants at the end. It’s a 20-minute walk straight up 9 de Octubre from Malecón 2000, or take a taxi ($2).

General Cemetery

Guayaquil’s General Cemetery (Julian Coronel and Machala), at the north end of the city center, is one of the most impressive in South America. The contrast is stark between the lavish, decorated mausoleums on the east side and the wooden crosses on the west side where poorer residents have buried their dead illegally. One of the grandest tombs is that of former president Victor Emilio Estrada, who made a pact with the devil, according to legend, and whose spirit haunts the cemetery. Supernatural dangers aside, the cemetery is not very safe. Robberies have been reported, so never come alone or at night, and don’t wander far from the central area.

Parque Histórico

Across the bridge in the wealthy district of Entre Ríos, the eight-hectare Parque Histórico (Entre Ríos, tel. 4/283-3807, 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Wed.–Sun., $3 Wed.–Sat., $4.50 Sun.) is definitely worth the trip out of town. The park is divided into three zones: The wildlife zone was created out of the natural mangroves of the Río Daule and provides a snapshot of the Ecuadorian rainforest with 50 species, including deer, wildcats, tapirs, monkeys, sloths, ocelots, tortoises, parrots, toucans, and caimans. The traditions zone depicts rural life in reconstructed haciendas and has boisterous music and comedy shows on weekends. In the urban architecture zone, some of Guayaquil’s lost colonial buildings have been reproduced, and Café 1900 is the ideal place to have a coffee and gaze over the river.

There are buses to Entre Ríos from the terminal, or get a taxi from downtown ($4–5). After visiting the park, it’s worth walking up to the several malls, such as Riocentro and Village Plaza, if you fancy shopping with Guayaquil’s wealthy classes. This is the city’s richest area, nicknamed “Little Miami.”