Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, with the largest population (around 3.75 million), and is the nation’s main port. The city offers an interesting balance of history, it already existed as a native village before it was founded by the Spanish, and modernity, the Malecón 2000 is an extensive development with a mix of green areas, shopping, and entertainment. The city was a drastic change for us coming from the sparsely populated and tranquil Ruta del Sol, but it was the jump off point for our Galápagos adventure, so we were ecstatic to have arrived.
We thought we had a couchsurfing host, but once we made it to the bus terminal, we spent two unsuccessful hours trying to get ahold of him. Eventually, we gave up on the chance that he would answer his phone, and having exhausted our ability to entertain ourselves with the free wifi, we decided to call another host who had also accepted us. Fortunately, she answered her phone (even though our call woke her up) and gave us directions to meet her in front of a supermarket near her home.
Marcella, who just recently became a mother, welcomed us into her home, along with her husband Christian. We slept soundly, despite the suffocating heat and humidity, and awoke to breakfast of bread, cheese, and coffee. Marcella needed to run some errands, so we left the house with little sense of where she actually lived, and less sense of where we were heading. However, our spontaneous adventures turned out outstanding.
We got off the bus in the renewed downtown area (area regenerada) and proceeded to walk along the Malecón 2000 toward the Santa Ana and El Carmen hills. We climbed the 400 odd steps through the historical neighborhood housing a multitude of vendors, bars and restaurants before making it to the top. At the peak there is a lighthouse, museum, small chapel and park, which afforded us amazing views of the river, downtown, and Las Peñas–colonial buildings painted in bright colors where the city was founded.
We descended through the vibrant neighborhood back towards downtown to visit the “Parque Seminario” (also known as “Parque de las Iguanas”), which is home to hundreds of tame iguanas (some reach 5 feet long) that tourists and locals feed mango slices, Japanese tilapia, some turtles, a black squirrel or two, and many colorful locals playing boardgames, cards, or simply relaxing in the foliage.
After relaxing a bit, we began a hunt for a Bourdain approved local restaurant that served the national dish, encebollado–a fish stew commonly prepared with albacore, tune, billfish or bonito, served with fresh tomato, boiled cassava, pickled red onions, and ripe avocado, and garnished with pepper or coriander, lime juice, chili sauce and plantain chips. We relished in the rich meal before laboriously making our way to the bus back home.
We stopped at a supermercado to stock up on supplies for the Galápagos Islands before heading home. Once we arrived, Marcella invited us to join her and her family at her aunt’s house to celebrate New Years Eve. We were considering staying home and getting some rest before our early flight the next morning, but when we showed the slightest sign of hesitation, Marcella looked so sad that we immediately committed. Plus, we saw the massive paper maché sculptures being sold all over town and were curious to see how they fit into the celebration.
Her aunt lived on the second floor of a comfortable house over looking a somewhat busy, divided, four lane street. From her living room we could watch the fireworks bloom over the city skyline. As we salivated over the feast that was slowly coming together, we distracted ourselves with the local mayhem, which involved a multitude of fireworks and the burning of nearly everything flammable. While the remainder of the guests gradually arrived, we chatted (rather circularly) with Marcela’s 98 year old grandmother, who delighted in the opportunity to share stories from her life with foreign guests–especially after a few maracuya (passion fruit) daiquiris.
When all the guests arrived, we were finally allowed to feast from the massive buffet, which consisted of salad (lettuce, corn, tomato, carrots, and lime juice), brown rice with raisins, turkey, ham, a dish reminiscent of stuffing except made with peaches and some form of gravy, and a variety of desserts such as fruits, flan, tres leches, and cake.
When everyone had their fill of food, the highlight of the evening commenced. We started by setting off a few fireworks, before the años viejos (old years) were arranged in a pile in the middle of the street. These paper maché figures, ranging in size from a few feet to ten or more feet tall, often resembling historical, movie or cartoon characters. The energy was palpable as the entire neighborhood prepared to burn their offering to the New Year.
We left the next morning for the Galápagos Islands on a culture high and spent the morning in the airport reminiscing about the debauchery we had witnessed the night before. When we finally returned from to Guayaquil ten days later, our hosts weren’t home, so we decided to treat ourselves for last night in the city.
We went to a local restaurant for river crabs and beer, where locals, having witnessed our confusion, helped us open the defiant creatures, and sort through which parts were best to eat.