Gateway to the Galapagos: Guayaquil, Ecuador’s riverside beating heart
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We can’t lie, the vast majority of Guayaquil city is uuuuglyyyyyyy (promise me you said that in the voice of the Lion King hyenas too?!). The population and stretch of Guayaquil beats even the country’s capital, Quito, so the streets are alive with street vendors, bright lights and a mish-mashing of cultures brought together in search of better opportunities. Once we got to know the city, it didn’t seem so bad, and your perception of Guayaquil tends to be determined by whether or not you stayed in the centre. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the nitty gritty of large powerhouse cities, make sure you stick to area around the riverside and don’t stray much further than Las Peñas. That being said, there are still enough interesting things to do in Guayaquil to make it worth visiting; we’ll run you through them, as well as some info on where to eat & drink in Guayaquil, and how to get to surfers’ paradise in nearby Montañita!
How to pronounce Guayaquil: g-why-ah-KEEL (or drop the ‘g’ for a super-local spin)
Most people use the city just as a stopping point for their flight to or from the Galapagos so they don’t often check out all the things to do in Guayaquil, but during our first trip to Ecuador we skipped the islands due to time, cost and lack of interest in birds (we eventually went in April 2019, and as it turns out, we bloody love birds), so we thought we’d spend a little time exploring Guayaquil as a city break.
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Malecón 2000 is the name of the waterfront along Simon Bolívar; a beautiful, pedestrianised park that takes you for about a mile down the river. It reminds us of London South Bank, but better because it has no boring art galleries (joking. Art is like, really interesting). The place is super clean and really safe, even at night. A stroll down the Malecón is usually the first of things to do in Guayaquil when you arrive.
There are a few pop-ups to stop in at along the way. We loved the Pilsener Bar, mostly because we’ve worked with the brand in the past, but it’s also a great spot to sit and watch the sunset with a beer. If you find yourself on the Malecón a few times, take a look at the water. We never got to the bottom of why, but each time we went, the river was flowing the opposite direction. PLEASE EXPLAIN.
Brush up on the history at Parque Historico Guayaquil
Interested in seeing what Guayaquil looked like way back when? This central park offers a look into what life was like from pre-Columbian indigenous ways of life up to the colonial ‘Golden Age’, with houses and exhibitions to explore through the times. There’s also a zoo on-site as part of their rescue and environmental restoration work, so it’s a great activity to do in Guayaquil if you’re travelling with kids. Entry to the park is free, but you can pay for a tour guide if you’d like to know more about what you’re seeing.
Get back to nature at the Botanical Gardens
This volunteer-run botanical garden offers one of the most relaxing things to do in Guayaquil. Ecuador is believed by some to be home to the greatest variety of orchids in the world, and you can see a fair selection of them in the botanical gardens’ Orchidea exhibition. It’s located very south of the city, so you’ll probably want to get a taxi down there. Entry costs $3.
Chill with iguanas in Parque Seminario
One of the things to do in Guayaquil that you should most definitely, absolutely, for reals not miss out on is Parque Seminario, known more aptly as ‘Iguana Park’. We expected more of a zoo vibe before we went to go see it, but as it turns out the iguanas are wild (as wild as they can be when surrounded by humans all day) and are there of their own free will, lured in by the mangroves in the area and lettuce that people bring to feed them. There must be around 100 iguanas in the park, which are so chill that it’s fine to give them a stroke. Some of them are huge so if you don’t like reptiles this might actually be a place to skip… They also have ponds with fish and terrapins in – which are also pretty cool. Aside from the animals, the plaza is gorgeous, and there are a few reptile-less corners in which to relax and soak up the architecture.
Go dolphin watching
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in Guayaquil for animal lovers! This 5-hour boat excursion from Guayaquil takes you to the mangroves of El Puerto Morro, where you’ll be on the look-out for bottlenose dolphins, albatross, sea lions and more.
Get lost in non-touristy markets
If you head south down the Malecón 2000 and go a few streets inland, you find yourself in an absolute maze of market stalls. We’re talking several full blocks’ worth in every direction. Have a wander through the chaos or get really stuck in and try to barter down on some ‘Adibas’ trousers, Labrador puppies (which look so sad in the windows we wanted to rescue them all) or even a wedding dress. Whether you’re in the market for a purchase or not, keep your belongings close to you, as although it’s not an area where you see many tourists, it would be easy for opportunists to take advantage of the close crowds.
When you’re chilling out with iguanas in Parque Seminario, it’ll be hard not to notice the neo-gothic masterpiece that is the Catedral Metropolitana de Guayaquil. It’s mighty striking, both inside and out, though be aware that this isn’t actually the original – the first burnt down in 1892 (that’ll teach ’em to build it out of wood).
Climb Cerro Santa Ana to see Las Peñas
Another excellent way to spend an hour or so is visiting Las Peñas on Cerro Santa Ana, which was Guayaquil’s first ever neighbourhood, set up by the rich Spaniards centuries ago. It’s the district with colourful houses on the hill closest to the river front that you’ll see from the Malecón 2000, and it’s a must of the things to do in Guayaquil. There is a main road called ‘1ra Peatonal 12NE’ leading up the centre of the hill with all the touristy houses-turned-restaurants and bars (Las Peñas is no longer the wealthiest of areas so who can blame locals for cashing in on their geographical luck?), however, we accidentally went up on the wrong street, and had a much nicer, more authentic view of the district on the way to the peak.
Las Peñas is a UNESCO site, and security is taken very, very seriously, so expect to see a policeman at the end of every street who will be bored stiff and more than happy to tell you which way to go if you get lost.
To follow the route we took, head to the steps at the very end of the Malecón, cross the road and head up the small set of steps to your right leading to a colourful street of houses that doesn’t look too steep (Numa Pompillio Llona street). Along this road, you’ll see some amazing art being produced in workshops that you can peek into, such as life-size sculptures of celebrities being made from photos.
Once you drag yourself up to the top – there are a lot of stairs, but plenty of rest points too – get yourself to the lighthouse, where you’ll have the best view of Cerro del Carmen, the less well-maintained version of Las Peñas, and most of the rest of the city. Spend a little time chilling in the quaint little chapel, or head straight down to the more touristic street for a drink and a browse.
Take a ride on La Perla
Not done with views of the city yet? Next on our list of things to do in Guayaquil is riding La Perla is a 57m tall ferris wheel – the tallest in South America, in fact. It sits at the end of the Malecón 2000, and only costs $3.50 for the 12 minute ride. We’d recommend seeing views from the top of Cerro Santa Ana during the day, and from La Perla ferris wheel at night.
Paraglide over the city
Really really not done with the views? Get yourself up into the air with a paragliding experience. Since the city sits on a foresty delta, the land formations are breath-taking from up above.
Get your sea legs on a pirate ship
The historic Captain Morgan pirate ship sails down the river to Isla Santay and back, which is both a sight to behold from the Malecón and an amazing experience from deck. The ship leaves up to 6 times a day from the dock near Calle Sucre, from 12.30pm to 9.30pm (7.30pm on Sundays), and the 1 hour ride costs just $7, though for $10 extra you can upgrade to open bar access (do it). The crew are all in character, and they perform a pirate show on-board.
Where to stay in Guayaquil
In order to see the good side of Guayaquil and to feel safe, try and stick to La Bahia district, close to the Malecón or Iguana Park. Things get rough around the edges pretty quickly outside of that area, but we’re sure there will be other pockets of nice barrios in places we haven’t explored. If you book early enough, there are plenty of decent hostels all the way up to swanky hotels in this area (it’s a financial hub so there’s lots going on). A taxi from the bus terminal or Guayaquil airport to La Bahia will cost you $5.
There are also some very expensive looking hotels on the other side of Las Peñas, which you’ll see from the hilltop (let me hear you say ‘rooftop pool’).
The places we stayed in Guayaquil weren’t fantastic as we booked quite late, but had we had our time again Black Castle Guesthouse would be our top choice, based on the location and exceptional reviews.
Where to eat and drink in Guayaquil
If you haven’t worked it out by now, Andy loves Chinese food, and there are plenty around Iguana Park which is where the Chinese community seems to have settled. Prices range between restaurants from $2 a dish to $10 a dish so ask to see the menu first. Our favourite was Chifa Oriental on Gabriel Jose de Luque y Benitez. The first one we’ve found with an actual atmosphere!
Surprisingly, it was quite difficult to find bars in the main centre of Guayaquil. Google Maps shows that most of them are on the touristy street of Las Peñas, but we didn’t fancy those too much, and we take Maps with a pinch of salt out here because most small businesses don’t bother (or know how) to add themselves to it. We found a small area of bars and clubs between Padre Aguirre and Imbabura streets, including lots of Karaoke and some potential gay bars. As previously mentioned, the Pilsener Bar is a great place to go to watch the sunset from Malécon.
On our last night, we also came across a hub of activity on Gabriel Jose de Luque y Benitez just by Parque Centenario (do be careful around the park at night, as it becomes a pick-up area for prostitutes and a hang-out for pimps). We decided to go into one of the rundown looking bars, just because we love hanging out with drunk locals, but what we found inside was one of the weirdest vibes we’ve seen on this trip.
While not in any way a strip club, the status quo seemed to be that a man/group of men could buy an extra beer for one of the tightly-dressed, amply-breasted ladies who worked there, who would then spend the evening with them, boosting their ego with interesting conversation and letting them stroke their leg as if they were together. Sort of a very tacky, cheap-barred Playboy club? We couldn’t work out if it was hilarious or tragic that we were there as a couple, but either way, we’re not ones to leave before our beer is finished!
Getting the bus from Guayaquil to Montañita
Note that the bus terminal and airport are in practically the same place, which is pretty handy for those off to or back from the Galapagos who don’t want to spend time in Guayaquil.
The bus terminal is huge, modern and utterly confusing. In the morning and evenings, expect out-of-this-world queues, but things calm down in the late afternoon. Getting the bus to Montañita, we got there an hour early to make sure we could buy tickets. We were told by 3 different members of staff to get into the queue for local services on the bottom floor – a queue that stretched round 3 corners of the block of shops and would have taken over an hour to get through to a desk. It was only due to an old guy trying to get sales for his company telling us we didn’t have to wait here that we realised the only direct bus tickets for Montañita were sold on the third floor of the terminal, which had little to no queue.
We went with the bus company Libertad, but unfortunately had to wait 4 hours until the next departure because the 1pm bus was already full by 12pm. The last bus is at around 6pm (except Fridays when they go later) so make sure you’re there in the morning to guarantee you’ll get to Montañita. We also travelled on a Saturday, which didn’t help as it’s when locals pack up the buses as they venture out for a weekend of partying and debauchery on the coast.
How long do you need to enjoy the things to do in Guayaquil: 2-3 days