Guayaquil, Ecuador – Dangerous Destination or Paranoia?
After checking into the Oro Verde Hotel in Guayaquil, Ecuador I asked for a map of the city center. The concierge hesitated for a moment before unfolding one on the countertop. He marked off the sites of interest: museums; the Malecon 2000, a broad boulevard dotted with gardens, restaurants, playgrounds and theaters that runs for miles along the Guayas River; and the 444 steps of Santa Ana Hill that lead to a lighthouse and chapel at the top. “Please allow us to arrange for one of our taxis when you are ready to go,” he finished. When I explained that I preferred to walk he grew concerned. “Then you must stay on the main street, El Neuve de Octubre, that runs past the hotel,” he insisted. “And you must not go out alone at night.”
The next morning I walked briskly past the two black-suited, stone-faced, earbud-wearing security guards in the hotel lobby and onto the main street. Alert to possible danger, I was immediately aware of a massive police presence; in the three blocks between the hotel and a cellular phone store I counted 18 police officers, many wearing bulletproof vests, while private security guards manned the entrances of banks and retail stores. Minutes later, armed with an Ecuadoran phone number for my iPhone, I extracted my camera from my backpack and continued toward the Malecon 2000. Before I’d gone a block I was flagged down by a policeman who politely suggested that I stow my camera. “I’m a photographer and it’s my job to take photos,” I patiently explained. He was somewhat mollified when he learned I had a local phone. “If anything happens, you must dial 101. It’s the emergency number here in Guayaquil.”
All around me businessmen walked to their offices, customers streamed in and out of retail stores and mothers pushed infants in strollers. The city didn’t feel dangerous to me. Mystified, I stopped several different officers and security guards along the way, asking the same question of each, “Is it safe for me to walk here alone?”
Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, is also reputed to be the most dangerous and violent city in the country. Because it is the economic engine for the nation, Guayaquil has attracted a large number of immigrants from surrounding countries, as well as poor, rural Ecuadorians who have flocked to the city in search of opportunity. The Internet is rife with reports of assaults, robberies, rapes and kidnappings and both the U.S. State Department and U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office contain strongly worded notices about the dangers of Guayaquil. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum contains scores of stories from visitors who have been robbed and/or assaulted. Generally, these warnings do not alarm me; I have visited dozens of supposedly unsafe cities around the world and discovered the dangers are almost always exaggerated. However, the unprecedented police presence in Guayaquil gave me pause.
Interestingly, the officers I queried were in disagreement. Some asserted that I would be perfectly safe in the well-patrolled tourist areas, while others insisted I should not walk alone anywhere in Guayaquil. Since that was not an option, I redoubled my usual watchfulness and set out to discover what the city had to offer. The Malecon 2000 is well-lit and filled with locals who patronize the restaurants, attend concerts, and bring their children to play in the extensive playgrounds after work each evening. I spent a good deal of time there and never once felt unsafe walking along the river, not even after dark.
Later that afternoon I stopped by Parque del Centenario to watch the iguanas begging water and ice cream from families seated on park benches. Across the plaza, crews were setting up a sound system for a performance of the Banda Blanca de la Armada de Equator, the Navy Band of Ecuador. By chance, I had arrived during the 10-day celebration of the Independence of Guayaquil. The first city to cast off the shackles of Spain’s domination, Guayaquil’s resistance set in motion revolutions all over the country and is considered to be the roots of Ecuador’s independence. The orchestra struck up a number and I joined the crowd, watching with amusement as a young boy and a slightly inebriated Guayaquileno lip-synched to the patriotic number belted out by the band’s vocalist. Viva Guayaquil! echoed across the square at the end of each number. I joined el grito – the scream – that resounded throughout the country during the struggle for independence. Viva Guayaquil!
Can’t view the above slideshow of Guayaquil, Ecuador? Click here.
One day I opted to explore Santa Ana hill, a neighborhood at the end of the Malecon 2000 where vibrantly painted casitas sprout from the slopes of like bunches of Dutch tulips. One block beyond the staircase leading up Santa Ana hill I spotted a lovely old church with a rose-colored facade. Flagging down a nearby security guard, I inquired if it was safe to visit the church. After a moment’s consideration he said yes, but advised me to watch my belongings. Unmolested, I took a few shots of the church’s exterior but upon stepping inside I was followed by a middle-aged woman who attempted to strike up a conversation. No hello, how are you; no niceties. The only thing she wanted to know was how much my camera cost. I pretended I didn’t speak Spanish and reported her to the security guard outside, who promptly told me I should not be in that neighborhood. Moments later, a man in white shirt and tie came out of a nearby office building and escorted me back to the Santa Ana stairway, explaining that city employees keep an eye on tourists because they want everyone to have a good experience in their city.
Back at Santa Ana hill I began the long trudge via winding stone staircases. Maps along the way showed several routes to the top but security guards not only insisted I stay on the steps that were numbered, they followed me all the way, using their walkie-talkies to hand me off from one guard to the next. Later, on the way down, I was allowed to go down one side street that was heavily guarded, but when I tried to turn down Calle de las Animas (Spirit Street), a resident poked his head out the window of his house and warned me to turn back – “peligroso alla,” he insisted, dangerous there.
After being in the city for five days I was more confused than ever. I couldn’t reconcile the unfailingly polite and gracious people I was meeting with police officers whose expressions screamed, “What are you doing here, crazy lady?” On my final day I took a last stroll along the Malecon and noticed a series of large photos on display in an area I hadn’t previously visited. They memorialized the events of September 30, 2010, when Ecuadorian police revolted against a proposed new law they believed would reduce their benefits.
Simultaneously in at least three major cities, officers withdrew from their posts, blockaded roads with burning tires, and seized police buildings. With no police presence, lawlessness ensued. Rocks shattered glass plate windows in Guayaquil’s city center and buildings were burned in the suburbs. In Quito, President Rafael Correa appeared at police headquarters to demand an end to the revolt and was attacked with tear gas. Security guards hustled the President away to the hospital, which was promptly surrounded by police. In response thousands of civilians, mostly blue collar workers, gathered around the hospital in a show of support for Correa, demanding his release. Ten hours later military forces that had remained faithful to the government rescued Correa, but not before four people were killed and 193 wounded. Later, police radio recordings from the night of September 30th revealed that police intended to kill the President
I learned about the events of September 30th at the Museum of Archeology and Contemporary Art and later read up on the political history of Ecuador. Between 1997 and 2007, the country had eight presidents, two of whom were overthrown in coups. One of those who was overthrown, Lucio Gutiérrez, was witnessed directing the protests in Quito and there is speculation that he masterminded the well-coordinated revolt, using misinformation about the proposed law to stir up sentiments among law enforcement personnel. Fortunately, the demonstrations were short-lived; police went back to work the next day and Guayaquil was back to normal. After an investigation a general amnesty was declared and five days after the event the government decreed a salary increase for the police and the armed forces. But given the dichotomy between the warm and welcoming attitudes of Guayaquilenos and the impassive, callous demeanor of some of the police officers, I can’t help but wonder if the common people’s support of Correa during the events of September 30th is a wound that still festers.
The museum exhibits that memorialize the September 30th uprising are a testament of the depth to which the populace was affected by the event. In one room, tear gas canisters are scattered around a circular pile of dried, paper-thin flower petals. Hand-written index cards clipped to clotheslines strung above the highly polished floor tear at the heart. One says, “In my 32 years of life, I have never felt as much fear and desperation as I did on that day; it was like watching a horror movie. Truth is stranger than fantasy. We are a people of peace and yet we fight.” A second declares, “Enough of Beasts – long live the Democracy.” A third, simply, “Peace, Ecuador.”
Guayaquil is just beginning to emerge from its history as a rough and tumble port city with not much to offer tourists. As I strolled the renovated Malecon, only just completed in 2000, the pleasure of residents who flock to the waterfront each evening was palpable. Perhaps in time that attitude will spill over to law enforcement and replace their paranoia with civic pride. In the meantime, visitors who take normal precautions like not flashing money around or wearing a lot of jewelry, and who stay strictly inside the designated tourist zones, should be able to enjoy Guayaquil as much as I did.
Where to stay in Guyaaquil:
I stayed at both the upscale Oro Verde Hotel, located in the center of the business district, and the economical Manso Boutique Hostal, located directly across the street from the Malecon, where I paid $10 per night in a four-bed dorm with ensuite bathroom. A bonus for me, Manso offered vegetarian breakfasts and lunches for $3 each.
Photos of the 2010 revolt displayed in the second slide show are provided courtesy of the Museum of Archeology and Contemporary Art in Guayaquil