Flight cancellations were a running theme on this trip. We survived our infamous not-not canceled flight and then a most definitely canceled flight. But believe it or not, our brief visit to Ecuador’s largest city was the consequence of yet another flight cancellation.
This one, however, happened a couple of months before the trip. That’s when we received a cryptic email from TAME Airlines telling us we were now booked on a flight to Guayaquil instead of the one we had booked to Cuenca. Why? We had no clue. Demonstrating TAME’s highly refined customer service skills, the email contained no explanation whatsoever.
So I did a little research and discovered that the airport in Cuenca was shutting down for two days. For some kind of maintenance, apparently. Really, Cuenca? You’re scheduling major airport maintenance during the height of the tourist season? (February is low season in the Amazon, but it’s high season in the Galapagos – and therefore in Ecuador’s major airports as well.) I mean, I could understand if there had been an emergency or something. But clearly that wasn’t the case, since the decision to shut the place down was being made two months in advance. AND EXACTLY ON THE DATES THAT FLYING TO CUENCA WOULD HAVE BEEN USEFUL TO US. It was as if some god of aviation (not necessarily the same as the god of the Amazon) was just having a grand old time fucking around with our itinerary.
I did a little more research and determined that, based on Ecuador’s geography, our only reasonable option was to accept the diversion. We would spend one night in Guayaquil, and then hire a driver and car to drive us to Cuenca the following day. The drive only takes 3 hours, so it wasn’t exactly the worst possible outcome. Still, the change of plans did not sit well with us. George and I had already decided to skip Guayaquil. It’s Ecuador’s last big city that still has a reputation for muggings, armed robberies and other crimes against tourists. Now we were going there whether we liked it or not.
But in fact, everything worked out fine. The few morning hours that we had to wander around Guayaquil provided just enough time to take in the city’s most popular tourist sites. And we were not mugged or robbed. Besides that, the drive to Cuenca turned out to be one of the most, uh, memorable events of the trip. (More about that in the next post.)
So how does one kill a few hours in Guayaquil? First, you meander slowly up the winding numbered steps of Las Peñas, Guayaquil’s famously regentrified neighborhood. Colorful houses crowd together, perched on the sides of a hill that’s crowned by a small lighthouse and church overlooking the city. There are 444 steps in all to the top. That’s a bit of trivia that might be worth remembering. Who knows, you might need it some day on Jeopardy, or while playing Trivial Pursuit with your highly competitive friends. (Wait, does anyone still play Trivial Pursuit? Am I dating myself here?)
After returning to sea level, you can take a leisurely stroll down the Malecón, a modern 2-kilometer boardwalk that looks out over the wide Río Guayas. The street side is lined with botanical gardens, historical monuments, duck and coy ponds, restaurants and shops. The side facing the river features nautical-themed bridges and observation decks. The river eventually makes its way to the Pacific Ocean, which is how Guayaquil became an important South American port several centuries ago, and why it remains one of Ecuador’s biggest engines of commerce.
As for the crime, no worries here. In both Las Peñas and all along the Malecón, armed police are stationed within eyesight of each other and everyone else. We can’t speak for the rest of Guayaquil, but we felt completely safe in those districts. It seems the city is trying hard to improve its image and bolster tourism.
We didn’t eat a meal in Guayaquil (except at the hotel) and we didn’t have enough time to get a true vibe for the city. We hope to come back one day when Guayaquil’s reputation is better and we can check out less touristy neighborhoods. And if the god of aviation is in a merciful mood, maybe we’ll even get to spend more than one night here.