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Reinventing Guayaquil: once just a seedy seaport on the way to the Galapagos, Ecuador's largest city has come into its own with a complete makeover.

"Guayaquil is not for the meek," declares a 1990s travel guide. Other guidebooks from that era warn visitors, "Go with friends" and "Be alert for pickpockets." One book, published in 1991, blithely assures readers that there are neither tourist attractions nor tourists in Guayaquil.

Then, as now, Guayaquil served as the jumping-off point for the Galapagos Islands. But visitors typically lingered in this mainland city just long enough to board a flight to the archipelago, seldom straying beyond Guayaquil's airport or the safety of their hotel.

Clearly, Guayaquil was ripe for a makeover. As the year 2000 approached, city officials launched an ambitious urban renewal effort that would clean up blighted neighborhoods, add tourist attractions, modernize the airport, strengthen security, and in the end transform Guayaquil from a gritty seaport to a modern, attractive metropolis.

Nor did Guayaquil undergo a mere cosmetic facelift. Apart from spruced-up parks and new tourist attractions, the entire infrastructure--streets, sidewalks, tunnels, sewer system--faced an overhaul. Power and telephone lines disappeared underground. Plans were laid to replace haphazard transportation arrangements with a new rapid transit system; last year Metrovia's first buses started rolling.

Guayaquil's dramatic turnaround has earned plaudits from recent visitors, international organizations, and--perhaps more importantly--from its own citizens. "Guayaquil used to be like a big country town, because we didn't have any services," says longtime resident Veronica Sanchez. "Now it's a real city."

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Especially noteworthy is the innovative manner in which the citizens were invited to participate in the revitalization of their city. Both businesses and individuals were offered the opportunity to designate a public project as the place to funnel 25 percent of their taxes.

One venture financed in this way is the showcase Malecon 2000, also known as Malecon Simon Bolivar, the boardwalk that parallels the Guayas River. "They used to call it a den of thieves, because of inadequate lighting and insufficient policing," says another resident, Kerly Cornejo. Now it's a pleasant walkway some two miles long that invites strolling, dining, and browsing along the river. Restaurants and shops are interspersed with gardens, monuments, public art, and play areas, and anchored by a theater complex adjacent to a worldclass museum.

Joseph Garzozi, the city's director of tourism, estimates that 95 percent of the pedestrians sauntering the Malecon are local, 5 percent visitors. Watching parents pushing their toddlers on playground swings and devotees of tai chi practicing on the broad deck adjoining the museum, it's easy to see that locals feel a sense of ownership toward their boardwalk. "People who live in the city enjoy the city," says an enthusiastic Garzozi.

Generally acknowledged as the driving force behind the massive revitalization is Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot, whose hands-on approach to addressing urban problems leaves him little time to attend ceremonies in his honor. When the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy presented its Sustainable Transport Award to Guayaquil at a ceremony in Washington, DC, Nebot accepted via video. According to Walter Hook, the organization's executive director, Nebot "belongs to a new generation of bold mayors ... who are tackling seemingly intractable problems like traffic gridlock and air pollution--and winning."

Even before Nebot first took office in 2000, the previous administration of Ecuadorian President Leon Febres Cordero had set the wheels in motion to upgrade both the image and the reality of Guayaquil. For a glimpse of the possibilities, city planners looked to Curitiba, Brazil, where dramatic improvements to the infrastructure had attracted international attention.

The reality is that Guayaquil has long been a major South American seaport, the conduit through which 70 percent of Ecuador's imports and exports pass. In recent years those exports have consisted chiefly of oil and bananas, as well as shrimp and other seafood, cacao, fruit, vegetables, and cut flowers. But price fluctuations on world markets have wreaked havoc with the country's economy. With the added burden of natural disasters in the late 1990s, poverty rates approached 70 percent.

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Ecuador's largest city at more than two million people and the capital of Guayas Province, Guayaquil is also the commercial and financial heart of the country. Garzozi, looking beyond business interests, touts the potential for international tourism--both individual visitors and conventions--as the solution to Ecuador's economic problems. "It's the most logical way to bring money into the country and to spread it to a large portion of the population," he says.

The waterfront has been the hub of activity here ever since the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of Guayaquil displaced an indigenous village on the banks of the Guayas River. Its founder, Francisco de Orellana, later earned fame by virtue of his epic traverse of the Amazon River. A romantic myth ascribes the city's name to the tragic couple Guayas and Quil, doomed native rulers who plunged into the depths of the river rather than submit to Spanish invaders. (A more scholarly explanation traces the name to the ancient Quilca tribe and their description of the surrounding land.)

Orellana is believed to have established Santiago de Guayaquil on July 25, 1537 or 1538. Some point to earlier settlement attempts by Sebastian Moyano de Benalcazar (founder of Quito) and Diego de Almagro, in 1534-35. But Huancavilca natives sporadically routed the intruders, leaving it to Orellana to reestablish the city. It took another ten years before Guayaquil was firmly anchored on its present site, thereby yielding an alternative founding date of July 25, 1547. Unfazed by historical ambiguities and unwilling to let academic quibbles stand in the way of a good party, the insouciant Guayaquilenos celebrate their city's founding on July 25, in tandem with the July 24 birthday of the great liberator Simon Bolivar.

The Huancavilca people, meanwhile, are viewed as the antecedents of many Guayaquilenos, together with relative newcomers from other parts of Ecuador and far beyond. Garzozi explains that the makeup of Guayaquil's population gives it a different character than highland cities like Quito. For one thing, he says, "the coastal area of Ecuador was never conquered by the Inca." He adds that; Guayaquil is a city of immigrants: "We have immigrants from all over--Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Lebanese."

Given nearly 300 years of Spanish rule, one might expect to find in Guayaquil a colonial district rivaling the World Heritage sites of Quito and Cuenca. But the colonial period in Guayaquil is largely left to the imagination, buried under successive fires, pirate raids, floods, and plagues. Guayaquil's share of tourism traditionally amounts to little more than half that garnered by the smaller capital city, Quito.

Yet there's no denying the key role played by Guayaquil in the history of Ecuador. For one thing, the Gulf of Guayaquil was the entry point for the Spanish in their conquest of what today is Peru and Ecuador. Later, in 1820, the citizens of Guayaquil were the first to declare independence from Spain, a year and a half before the rest of the country achieved independence. It was this city, too, that hosted the only known meeting between Bolivar and his fellow South American independence hero Jose de San Martin.

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The place where Guayaquil started, easily visible from the river or the highway, rises like a mound of colorful mosaics on the flanks of the hill known as Cerro Santa Aria, where vibrant blues, greens, pinks, and yellows reflect freshly painted buildings. In Barrio Las Penas, the historic district that overlooks the river, many of the residences along the cobblestone street called Numa Pompilio Llona bear plaques that identify one-time occupants--artists, writers, Intellectuals, past presidents of the country.

This hillside neighborhood--once decried as a dangerous slum to be avoided--now embodies the essence of Guayaquil's revitalization efforts. Unlike gentrification programs that disregard the original residents, the plan for Las Penas called for involving the citizens as stakeholders in the upgraded neighborhood.

The chamber of commerce and the local government offered seminars in how to start a family business, reinforced by such subjects as accounting, customer service, and business administration. Renovations, clean streets, and the newly applied bright colors gave the inhabitants a psychological lift. Further encouragement came in the form of financial assistance. In the end, says Garzozi, 80 percent of the population decided to stay.

A wide staircase climbs the hill past small cafes, art galleries, bars, and craft stores. The steps--444 to the top--lead to Plaza Mirador El Fortin, its anachronistic cannons still guarding the city against marauding pirates. A chapel dedicated to Santa Ana now crowns the summit, along with the ultimate lookout point, reached by climbing an interior spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse. From here it's easy to see how the surrounding waterways have shaped Guayaquil.

From the north, the Daule and Babahoyo rivers converge to form the Rio Guayas. A long bridge spans the river at this point, heading to Duran, a city on the east bank that forms part of Guayaquil's metropolitan area. A barrio called Entre Rios, on the point of land between the Daule and Babahoyo, now houses the Parque Historico, which recreates an urban and a rural zone, both circa 1900, together with a wildlife refuge in an environment of natural mangroves.

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Guayaquil's location on the wide Guayas River, some 45 miles inland and surrounded by fertile agricultural land, dictated its destiny as an important South American seaport, a role it has fulfilled since colonial times. The local shipyards produced Spanish galleons that transported the wealth of the New World to Spain.

At the turn of the last century, when Ecuador was the world's largest exporter of cacao, Guayaquil thrived as the center of the cacao boom. During World War I, with the decline of the "golden bean" due to disease and competition, bananas began to replace cacao until today Ecuador is the world's leading banana exporter.

Situated almost on the equator, easily accessible to both coasts of North America and with an eye toward growing trade with China, Guayaquil is now poised to become a major Pacific Rim port. On the far side of the city runs the Estero Salado, one of many arms of the immense Gulf of Guayaquil that extends inland from the Pacific. The Malecon del Salado, complete with convention center, has recently taken shape along this inlet. Keeping pace with the upgrades in the city center, the port of Guayaquil, some six miles downstream, is likewise undergoing major modernization projects.

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At the base of the Cerro Santa Ana, two structures that flank the Plaza Colon hold a special place in the city's history. One is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the oldest church in the city, with a founding date of 1548 and its most recent restoration completed in 1938. The other is the Fireman's Museum, Museo del Bombero Felix Luque Plata, which displays the antique equipment called to many a blaze in Guayaquil. The great fire of 1896 destroyed large swaths of the city.

In fact, ever since the city's founding, fires have exacted a harsh toll on the citizens of Guayaquil. Attacks by British, Dutch, and French pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often ended with the wooden buildings in flames.

But today, "pirate ship" has a different connotation. Music, laughter, and the clinking of glasses emanate from the deck of a vessel plying the Guayas River. If the apparition looks like one of those pirate ships that caused so much consternation in Guayaquil in times past, the resemblance is intentional.

The Henry Morgan, a replica constructed in the Guayaquil shipyards, welcomes residents and tourists on board for a leisurely cruise on the Guayas River. Sailing past the sparkling Malecon 2000 with its nautical-inspired architecture, the "pirate ship" passes fishing vessels, shrimp boats, and other reminders of the old working port. The schooner also offers a sailor's view of the city and its architecture, including the elaborate Palacio Municipal, the Moorish Clock Tower, the Guayaquil Yacht Club, and four sculptures that seem especially appropriate for Guayaquil--representations of air, water, fire, and earth.

Toward the southern end of the Malecon 2000 stands another icon: the century-old Crystal Palace. The former Mercado Sur, having fallen into disuse due to lack of maintenance, was on the point of being lost completely. In its new guise the building is a center of expositions and events combined with the Plaza de los Artesanos, which displays crafts from every region of Ecuador. Conveniently, the Crystal Palace will be one of the first sights cruise passengers see when a passenger terminal is completed near the southern end of the Malecon.

At about the mid-point of the boardwalk looms the semicircle of the Rotonda, where the Monument to the Liberators memorializes the meeting of Bolivar and San Martin. Fittingly, the monument is located at the foot of Avenida 9 de Octubre, named for the date in 1820 when Guayaquil declared its independence from Spain.

An elegant restaurant in the Grand Hotel Guayaquil, called simply "1822," commemorates the Bolivar-San Martin meeting on July 26 of that year. The Argentine San Martin had written to the Venezuelan Bolivar to suggest that their armies join forces in the struggle for the independence of Spanish South America. But there exists no record of the discussion that ensued; subsequent letters only hint at what transpired.

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Bolivar followed up by completing the task of liberating Peru that had been started by San Martin, meanwhile struggling to hold together Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador in the short-lived Gran Colombia. San Martin, on the other hand, wandered off to France--and off the pages of South American history.

Guayaquil's renaissance continues unabated. A few months ago, Mayor Nebot Inaugurated a major development on the far side of Cerro Santa Ana. A continuation of Malecon 2000, Puerto Santa Ana is another project financed by city residents through their tax payments. An old beer factory has been recycled into a dockside retail and entertainment center that will eventually contain hotels and housing, restaurants, shops, and museums devoted to beer, music, and soccer.

Perhaps even more impressive than the expanding infrastructure is Guayaquil's emphasis on educational and cultural programs. Starting in 2003, local television introduced the program Aprendamos (Let's Learn) to more than a million viewers. Typical courses have included computer use, food handling, and citizenship.

The following year, the Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneo, or MAAC, opened to the public. Sponsored by the Central Bank of Ecuador and located where Malecon 2000 meets Las Penas, the new museum contains 50,000 artifacts dating from 8000 BC to 1400 AD. Its permanent archeology exhibit, "10,000 Years of Ancient Ecuador," encompasses the pre-Hispanic coastal civilizations that began with the Valdivia culture.

According to Kerly Cornejo, a guide at the museum, MAAC offers much more than an exploration of Guayaquilenos' roots and identity. "The people here tended to associate museums with archaeology, and not so much with contemporary art," she explains. But one objective of the museum has been to "plant a seed" of culture for all levels of society. Beyond the archeological exhibits, the museum contains 3,000 works of art.

Rotating exhibitions have featured contemporary artists from both within and outside the country. Programs such as "Culture for Everyone" and "Experiencing Art" are "helping children and adults to experience and understand the art and culture of our country," says Cornejo. "This contribution has brought art and culture to thousands of children from different parts of the province," she adds, "some of whom had never set foot in a museum. These programs are achieving the objective of providing culture for everyone."

Though much remains to be done, Guayaquil is no longer the gritty seaport described by residents and guidebook writers in the 1990s; rather, it serves as a model for other urban areas in need of an overhaul. Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, praised the visionary planning and vibrant economy that he observed during a 2003 visit to the city. More recently, the Madrid daily newspaper El Mundo declared Guayaquil's urban revitalization worthy of imitation. Meanwhile, says Cornejo, "people are proud to live in a city with more green areas, better streets, and an improving tourist image."

"In the end, a city is what its people want it to be," says Mayor Nebot. "Together, we who live in Guayaquil ... have decided to take on the challenge of doing what needs to be done."

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a California-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Americas. Victor Englebert, also a regular contributor, is a photographer and writer based in the United States.

Photographs by Victor Englebert
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3ECUD
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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