SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 23
Guayaquil and Baños
I stared at the myriad blue and white buses wheezing in and out of Guayaquil’s bus station and doubted I’d ever be able to figure out which one went to the centre of Ecuador’s largest city.
I sought out the information desk but expected no more than a grunt and a nod from the two men hidden behind their computer screens. What I didn’t realise was that in Ecuador people seem only too willing to help a lost tourist. Even, it seems, in a city that has the reputation of a ‘must skip’ destination.
I was shown a map of the bus route and then, with the grinning local, I was escorted out of the station, across the road and to the waiting Metrovia. Here a passing soldier decided it was his duty to take me to the platform and waved me off on my journey to the heart of Guayaquil.
I was gobsmacked. This wouldn’t have happened in Lima, probably not in Peru and certainly not in Bolivia. I doubt it would take place in London, either.
Ecuador, one of South America’s last ‘gringo trail’ countries, is still in the early days of tourism (excluding the Galapagos Islands) and as such doesn’t see many locals jaded by the influx of visitors. Instead they openly welcome tourists and seem genuinely interested in foreigners.
I took the information man’s advice on our way to the Metrovia, the zippy bus link that whizzes around the city, and headed to the Malecon 2000, the renovated promenade. It overlooks the expansive Guayas River which flows rapidly into the Pacific Ocean and is home to the country’s largest port.
The Malecon stretches for over two kilometres with leafy gardens, pricy fast food joints and a plethora of painted horse statues. The reason for these vibrant ponies I never discovered, but they make the view a bright one.
Further up, Santa Ana is an old neighbourhood that’s been fashionably refurbished. Enchanting narrow cobbled streets with painted houses are divided by over 300 steps. Little shops, cozy cafes (none of which were open) and an abundance of security personnel line the numbered staircase.
In a bid to give Guayaquil a better name in the safety stakes, the local authorities have stepped up the protection along the Malecon and in Santa Ana. I didn’t feel unsafe in Ecuador’s city that lends itself a bad name, at least among backpackers.
At the top of Santa Ana Hill an old lighthouse gives views right across the waterway and sprawling metropolis. Although only home to over 3 million people, Guayaquil from up above looks much larger.
I took a bus later that day to Baños, an area hailed as a must-see destination. Named after its public thermal baths, the small town has developed a salubrious name with multiple spas and pampering options.
I presumed, wrongly, that a town hemmed in by verdant hills would have ample hiking opportunities. When I asked at the tourist office, however, I was told a loop hike of two miradors (view points) was all that was on offer. Neither of which I was particularly wowed by, perhaps if the thick mist hadn’t been obscuring the mountains I would have appreciated it more.
Most people, however, wind up here to take up some kind of adventure sport. Rafting, canyoning, bungee jumping and downhill biking were all on the menu but I wasn’t keen to order any of them.
I did, however, spend a day being whirred around in a sand buggy looking for a local cure for the gremlins that have taken permanent residency in my stomach.
“I know the perfect medication for you,” a local man ventured, pleased he could help a sick gringa, “Cats’ claws!”
Animal lovers may well jump up and down in horror. I, thankfully, was in the know. Uñas de gato (cats’ claws) comes from the bark and sap of a tree of the same name which is native to the jungle areas of South America. Its properties range from helping clear intestines, lower blood pressure and about a million other things that natives swear it works on.
As the pharmacy was closed, the local, who by now seemed to enjoy being seen with a single white girl more than 10 years his junior, decided his next remedy would be in the form of a “medicinal drink”.
It came in the form of sugarcane rum in a plastic shot glass. I turned my nose up at it as I don’t drink booze but he persuaded me to gulp it down as the vendor chimed in that it helps stomach upsets! It was so vile I actually thought the gremlins may vacate.
Just in case it didn’t work, he tried to give me a shot of a different sugarcane liquor. It smelt like paint stripper and I was not about to let a Latino man try to get me legless, no matter how much he persisted it was in the name of my health. The gutter was promptly watered with the alcohol.
Instead, I sampled some taffy, the local confectionary that’s chewy and sweet and made (you guessed it) from sugarcane. Around the town men and women slap and pull the gooey mixture against wooden door frames. I sampled it while it was still soft and became a taffy addict. Its sugariness is a dentist’s nightmare but a sweet-toothed traveller’s delight.
“Have this bit for free,” a vendor said as he outstretched his hand with a sample, a twisted strip of green running through the otherwise toffee-brown colour. “If you like it you can tell your friends how good our taffy is.”
I gobbled it down in no time, my jaw going into overdrive to separate it from my teeth. I smiled back with taffy sticking to my molars, “Don’t worry, I’ll let them know.” And the dentists who’ll curse the invention of such a sweet, I mumbled to myself.
In my best Spanish I added, “And tell your friends that Ecuadorian hospitality is the sweetest I’ve found in South America.” He grinned back, his front teeth missing. All in line of duty I suppose.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- One of South America’s smallest countries with a population of only
- It borders Peru, Brazil and Colombia
- There are over 40 indigenous groups in the country
- The largest Ecuadorian city (but not the capital) with a population of over 3 million
- Has industries including textiles, leather goods, cement, alcohol, soap, and iron products
- The city was founded by the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Benalcazar n 1535
- It often came under attack from pirates in the 17th century