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