Guayaquil is not only the beating commercial heart of Ecuador but a vibrant sprawling city, growing ever more confident. A half-dozen high-rises give it a big-city profile, and several hillsides are engulfed by colorful favelas, but it’s the Río Guayas’ malecón (the riverfront town square) that defines the city’s identity.
The picturesque barrio of Las Peñas, which perches over the river, anchors the city both geographically and historically, while the principal downtown thoroughfare Avenida 9 de Octubre funnels office workers, residents and shoppers into one hybrid stream. Amid revitalized squares, parks and massive urban-renewal projects, the city has a growing theater, film and arts scene and lively bars, fueled in part by several large universities.
Note that all flights to the Galápagos Islands either stop at or originate in Guayaquil, so the city is the next best place after Quito to set up a trip.