Before heading to the Galapagos, Julie Hatfield tours Guayaquil, Ecuador

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At first glance, the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, is nothing to write home about. Hot, dirty, ugly, dangerous, the only reason I´m here is that it is the gateway to the Galapagos islands. This city is the best stopping-off point on the way to the famous islands put on the world map by Charles Darwin almost 200 years ago.

But I´m waiting for the cruise given by International Expeditions, of Helena, Ala., and they offer a four-hour city tour for those of us who have arrived in town a day early because the cruise begins the next morning.

Our guide George meets us at the hotel and driver Francisco drives us to the city center, where we see an eclectic mix of architecture, some of it quite beautiful. Italians came here and built some lovely structures, the most notable of which is Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, an exact replica of the same gallery in Milan. Here, it houses government offices rather than shops, but is quite impressive.

George takes us on a walk along the malacon, the boardwalk overlooking the River Guayas, and shows us the statues of the intellectuals who with their leader Jose Joaquin de Olmedo comprised the quiet, non-violent overnight revolution which freed the Ecuadoran city from the Spanish. The poets, artists, professors and the like simply gave a “party” one night and took over all the government buildings, and in the morning, Guayaquil was free.

We walk a short distance to Seminario Park, which is most notable for its hundreds of iguanas chomping on lettuce, slithering up the trees, lazing in the sun gathering warmth. This park was the highlight of the entire Guayaquil trip for my 8-year-old grandson from Colorado. He will never forget petting a foot-long reptile there.

Nearby the park is an artisan´s market where locals have made a renewable resource, from the tagua palm tree into “palm ivory,” a beautiful hard substance that is carved into buttons, ornamental animals, jewelry and the like.

Francisco drives us to the botanical garden of Guayaquil, where we see five different lemon trees, coffee bean trees, and cocoa trees, the latter from which the Ecuadorans sell their rich dark chocolate all over the world, including to the Hershey company and several Swiss chocolate companies. Among the stunning flowers in the botanical garden are the golden shower flower and a bromeliad — a red, pineapple-like flower connected to a gorgeous purple orchid that looks like a tropical bird.

We could climb the famous 444 steps of La Espana neighborhood, but George finds us a shortcut and we walk up a lovely neighborhood of artisans and on the other side of the road, million-dollar homes with lush gardens surrounding them, and a view over the city. Further on this road the city has begun building a Wyndham Hotel, which will be a nice addition to this part of town, with a breeze and a nice view of the  River Guayas, as well as the island locals call “Manhattan,” another neighborhood of beautiful private homes.

There´s a neighborhood called “Kennedy,” after U.S. President JFK, and our final stop, “The Hill,” or Mirador de Bellavista, an enormous hill where you can see nearly every one of the three million people and their homes that occupy this town.

We have delved a little deeper into a town we´d never even heard of before our trip, and found fascinating facts, such as, this is the only city in the country with a Jewish cemetery — Guayaquil has a large Jewish population. There´s a Moorish tower celebrating the Arab population here, and many uniformed security guards of every type from local police to bodyguards for the mayor to federal guards for others, but while we´ve been warned that Guayaquil can be a security risk for tourists, we have found the locals friendly and helpful and interesting.

Tomorrow, off to the islands and our cruise.

April 1, 2011

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