Guayaquil, Ecuador: A city with a colorful past

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GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador -- Sometimes it is the people, sometimes the architecture or maybe the physical setting of a city. At some point, though, you settle on a defining feature that determines what you will remember, for better or for worse, about a place.

For Guayaquil and my maiden visit, it was color -- first the kind associated with Benjamin Moore paints -- and color, as in colorful history, that determined I would like the city.

The Barrio de las Penas makes this point. It is a neighborhood built on Santa Ana Hill, the first residential neighborhood in the city founded by the Spanish in 1534, and, although rebuilt after the city's devastating 1896 fire, it had become a slum.

A few years ago, the city launched a restoration project for the historic neighborhood, refurbishing and repainting in bright hues the century-old houses.

Owners were responsible for remodeling the interiors, and many have clearly done so, opening their doors to tourists seeking snacks, souvenirs, art galleries and even an Internet cafe. Renovations of houses lining main streets are complete, but restoration of the entire hillside neighborhood is still under way.

Strolling this barrio is an up-and-down affair, with 450 steps to the top of Santa Ana Hill for a look at old cannons used to defend the city from pirates and, on a clear day, a good look at the park that lines Guayaquil's waterfront.

The city of 3 million was named for a local chief, Guayas, and his wife, Quil, 16th century leaders who chose death over surrender to the Spanish. That is colorful history -- and not very auspicious. The 1896 fire (el incendio grande) was disastrous, too.

But, today, Guayaquil is a city on the ascendancy, a fact that will be obvious to most any visitor.

Consider the Malecon 2000, which is a one-and-a-half-mile long riverside park adjacent to the downtown business and administrative districts.

It is much more than a park for strolling. It is a place for recreation, dining, shopping and viewing some of the city's treasured monuments.

It, too, is the beneficiary of a recent overhaul, driven by the need to repair damage produced by the el nino of 1997.

In its new incarnation, the Malecon is a cheery place. We strolled on red and yellow bricks arranged in geometric patterns and viewed the newest additions to the park's collection of sculptures: four sleek, modern pieces meant to represent air, fire, water and wind, which sit near the dock that is home to Ecuador's tall ship, the Guayas.

At the northern end, where the park abuts Las Penas, the city expects next month to open museums highlighting local anthropology and modern art.

The Malecon 2000 also is a gated park, and during the day, a private security firm under contract to the city provides armed security personnel. The same is true for Las Penas, and in both cases, the guards are very apparent.

Ecuador's Central Bank is supporting another development that holds appeal for both locals and tourists, the 8-year-old Guayaquil Historical Park, a short drive from downtown. It's open daily, except Mondays.

Covering nearly 20 acres, it includes a wildlife zone (the tapirs were the most exotic, but the macaws the prettiest and most amusing) and a "traditions zone" focused on rural life and crops such as bananas, chocolate and coffee. (Little-known fact: Each banana tree produces only one bunch of bananas -- but the same seed produces new trees for at least 30 years.)

The most promising zone, however, focuses on the city. Sponsors are relocating to this site some colonial buildings that survived the city's 1896 fire and its earthquakes, renovating and repairing them for a rebirth as shops, restaurants and museums. Two grand houses and a bank are in position, with exteriors beautifully revived but much to be done on the inside. They are slated to be finished later this year.

A few more houses will be relocated here, to complement an all-new shopping mall that is under construction; the mall relies for inspiration on the exterior and courtyard styles of an old convent.

On Sundays, the place is at its liveliest with cultural activities and hosts dressed in traditional garb. The entire area is slated for completion by the end of the year, our guide reported, but that timetable seems ambitious.

Finally, in harmony with park themes, the old Guayaquil section will be served by a paddlewheeler providing 30-minute transfers between Malecon 2000 and the park.

Our tour also included a short walk through Guayaquil's downtown, under many an arcade (built with the December-to-May rains in mind), to Administration Square, site of the 1920s government buildings (appropriately grand things with roofing over open spaces reminiscent of gallerias), and to the town's Metropolitan Cathedral, which overlooks a small park, often called the "iguanas park," because of the countless examples of that species underfoot there.

There was plenty we missed, too, in the way of monumental architecture and museums, not to mention restaurants. But Guayaquil wasn't built in a day; it can't be covered in one either.

You can reach the journalist who wrote this article at [email protected].

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