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Introducing Guayaquil

Certainly the image of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon is too poetic for a city that is the economic engine of the country. However, get caught up in the streams of guayacos wandering the Malecón (the city’s riverfront town square-cum-eatery-cum-cultural center) and there’s a feeling of a new and proud identity in the air. If Quito’s geography and identity is determined by the mountains, then Guayaquil’s is influenced by the river. Besides the amusement park–like development along the Río Guayas, there’s the historic barrio of Las Peñas, which perches over the riverfront – looking like a cross between a Mexican and Greek fishing village – and now boasts several happening restaurants and bars. Running away from the river is 9 de Octubre, the principal downtown thoroughfare, pedestrian walkway and shopping district.

Of course the massive urban renewal projects, and there are more in the works, also highlight the differences between the new Guayaquil and the old neighborhoods that recall what most of the city was like only a decade ago. Walking the downtown streets is like traversing a glacier: full of uneven surfaces and crevices. But even here among the revitalized squares and parks you can tell it’s a city in the midst of change.

Guayaquil is the commercial center of the country, with more than half the companies in Ecuador based here, but the city is also beginning to challenge the cultural hegemony of Quito. Apart from shrimp exporting, petroleum refining, food processing and manufacturing, you’ll find a theater, film and art scene growing alongside an already lively club and bar scene that’s fuelled in part by several large universities.

Note that all flights to the Galápagos Islands either stop or originate in Guayaquil, so the city is the next best place after Quito to set up a trip.