Many come to Guayaquil – Ecuador’s largest city and seaport – simply to get out of it. This bustling city of 2 million-or-so people is the stepping stone to the country’s crown jewel – the Galápagos – and whilst we primarily did use the city to travel onwards, we did linger for a few days just to get a taste of it.
Our time in Guayaquil was spent in the two areas visitors generally go to, so let’s take a look around the first – Downtown.
At a glance, the commercial centre of town doesn’t look like much. Some drab-looking high-rise towers, tired concrete buildings smeared with grime and a few glossy ones thrown in for good measure. Your typical Latina American city, really.
For those that like their shopping, Boulevard 9 de Octubre is the place to be, and those with a penchant for old buildings and museums, a wander along the pedestrianised section of Clemente Ballén offers some pretty fine architecture.
Scratch the surface of downtown Guayaquil and it doesn’t take long before you’re immersed in pockets of tree-lined streets, sculptures and fountains – not that it all looks like this.
One place definitely worth checking out is Parque Bolívar, which is dominated by the twin gothic-spired Metropolitan Cathedral. The park is also known as Iguana Park, for good reason, as you can find the manicured gardens crawling with dozens of iguanas going about their own business like nothing matters. The more you look, the more of them you see, especially in many of the trees.
Those that are into their food markets can get a very small taste at Mercado Municipal del Norte, about eight blocks north of Boulevard 9 de Octubre. It’s very much a neighbourhood set-up with a handful of vendors selling the usuals. Perfect if you want to pick up a few bits and pieces, or just take a look if you’re in the area.
Mercado Municipal del Norte, corner Padre Aguirre & Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno
Food-wise, downtown is filled with everything you could possibly expect from a Latino City. Local joints, international restaurants, cafes and plenty of American fast food giants. Coffee-wise, there’s the ubiquitous Starbucks-esque Juan Valdez, which actually does a pretty decent espresso.
Our downtown food favourites were the hornados joints, which you can spot easily thanks to their displays of roast pork, irresistible crackling and piles of bread rolls.
The best sanduche de cerdo (pork sandwich) we had was from Fuente de Soda Sandrita, a corner cafe that’s nothing much to look at, but definitely worth visiting if you like your cerdo.
The meat’s shaved off a beautifully roasted leg and then it’s stuffed into a crusty roll with some lightly pickled onion, some juices and small shards of crackling. For $2.50, it’s a bit of a bargain – drink included.
Fuente de Soda Sandrita, corner Pedro Carbo & Boulevard 9 de Octubre
Sanduche de cerdo
Another soda worth checking out is Mr Moto. Aside from its pork sandwiches, this corner cafe has many of the Ecuadorian mainstays – arroz con menestra (rice & lentils) with your meat of choice, fried fish, guatitas (tripe), bolónes (plantain balls) and seco de chivo (goat stew).
Aside from the enormous sanduche de cerdo, we sampled hayaca – a steamed banana leaf parcel of corn dough stuffed with raisins and boiled egg, plus shredded chicken.
Mr Moto, corner José Vélez & Tnte Gregorio Escobedo
The city’s pride and joy is the Malecón 2000, a regenerated strip of riverside land that’s popular with locals and visitors alike. The paved promenade is lined with lush gardens and waterways, monuments and statues, a couple of cafes, IMAX theatre, museum, shopping mall and La Perl – the city’s observation wheel.
Guayaquil doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to safety, so not only is the Malecón gated off, it’s policed and only open between 7am and midnight.
At the top of the Malecón is the city’s oldest barrio – Las Peñas. Not too long ago this area was an absolute no-go zone, but today the colourful hill is home to many bars and handful of restaurants.
A cobblestone road wraps around the bottom of the hill, which is dotted with a couple of cafes, souvenir stores and places to stay. Keep walking and you end up at a swanky riverfront residential area, with many restaurants beneath its towers.
The most visited part of Las Peñas is around the 444 numbered steps that ascend Cerro Santa Ana. Colourful wooden houses contain bars and the occasional local eatery, and some laneways offer great views over Río Guayas and beyond, but wandering just anywhere may not be wise. As with the Malecón, the main areas of Las Peñas are policed, so my suggestion is – stick to the main areas.
The best time of the day to visit Las Peñas, I think, is late afternoon when the temperatures are more bearable. This city gets hot and sticky and simply walking around brings on extreme sweats within a minute. I’m not sure how the locals do it, especially when wearing jeans and long sleeve tops.
As you climb the steps to the top of Cerro Santa Ana you catch sight of the city skyline, and if you’re lucky, a slight breeze.
If you’re really lucky you’ll spot this lovely lady with her delicious platter of plátanos y queso – or plantain with cheese. It’s the perfect snack of grilled or baked sweet plantain that’s cut down the middle and stuffed with a salty, haloumi-like cheese.
Grab your plátanos y queso and carry on to the top of the hill for a 360° view of the city. There’s the city’s oldest church up there – Iglesia de San Vicente – which was founded in 1548, plus a small lighthouse that you can climb for free.
El Faro del Cerro
Casija de Barro Las Peñas
Our short time in town meant we could sample a few of its bars and eateries. Las Peñas really comes to life after hours where all of its bars crank up the music and try to get you into their doors.
There’s the relatively rowdy El Faro del Cerro towards the top of the hill, one of the few bars in Las Peñas that has views over Río Guayas and beyond to Durán on the east shore. Food-wise it’s either a local plate of beef, chicken or pork with the usual sides, and drinks-wise it’s Club Premium beer or Club Premium beer. Not much choice, but somehow it works.
A little further down the hill is Casija de Barro Las Peñas, a terrace bar overlooking the Río and one that serves up a few more drinks than El Faro. There’s the usual beer, many cocktails and an excellent and very refreshing frozen lemonade. There are a few nibbles that come along for the ride.
At the bottom of the hill towards the riverfront apartment buildings is where we had the coldest beers in town. Casa Pilsener is a resto-bar that’s a stones throw from the river and offers a steamy terrace to enjoy your pilsener, or an air-con room to catch your breath in.
If you really want to live on the edge, try one of their wacky cerveza cocktails – like beer with condensed milk & vodka or beer with blue curaçao, vodka, tonic & syrup. Let’s just say we’re more the traditional straight-up beer kind of guys.
There is a food menu at Casa Pilsener, things like patacones (fried, smashed plantain with chicken or sausage), a bunch of seafood dishes, burgers and good old Tex-Mex.
Check the map for locations
There wasn’t a great variety of edibles sampled in Las Peñas, not that there’s a plethora of places to choose from, but here’s a couple of joints we visited.
Down by the waterfront opposite La Perla (the observation wheel), is a food hall-type set-up of local, Asian and KFC. It’s not the best place to head for your dinner, but when you’re desperately hungry and you simply can’t stomach any more rice, beans, plantain and grilled meat, it may be of help.
Our choice was Comidas de Victor, one of five eateries in the air-conditioned hall. You’ve got your usual local suspects on offer, which is made easy with display photos up on the wall.
Considering I’d already knocked back a few beers, I needed something greasy and something I’d regret eating. This came in the form of piqueos, a mini extravaganza of fried shrimp, chicken and fish, lightly spiced in crunchy batter. I didn’t regret those shrimp, they were pretty delicious.
Comidas de Victor, check map for location
There isn’t a great deal of dirt cheap almuerzo (lunch) joints in Las Peñas, but we did find one unnamed hole in the wall on the main drag at the bottom of the hill.
For a very wallet-friendly $2.50, we got ruspado de verde (potato, lentil and pork soup) and arroz con recorte (fried rice), plus a drink. Nothing outstanding, but if you’re not fussed on flair in the food or the surroundings, this one’s a winner.
Unnamed lunch restaurant, check map for location
The final place can be found on the stairs leading up Cerro Santa Ana, in amongst a bunch of other local eateries and bars. Comidas Típicas Paradero is exactly that, a restaurant serving up typical Ecuadorian food.
There are seven dishes available in the front room of what I believe to be the owners house. And she’s the most wonderful lady, too, even if we struggled to understand each other.
Once again, it’s nothing fancy, just your typical Ecuadorian stodge that’s as simple as your choice of protein with the same accompaniments – rice, manestra (lentil stew) and plantain. We went for the cerdo (grilled pork), which you can see above, some grilled fish and an ice cold beer.
Comidas Típicas Paradero, on the Escalón, see map for location
How we got to Cuenca from Guayaquil.
Buses run almost every hour from Terminal Terrestre in Cuenca. The journey takes 3½ hours and costs $8 per person.
Safety-wise, we encountered nor saw anything dodgy whilst in Guayaquil. Yes, it has its reputation of muggings, violence and the like, but everywhere we went we had no issues. Keep your wits about you, don’t do stupid things, be careful where you walk at night and simply use your street smarts.