The Andes fall away rapidly to the west, leaving a broad swathe of lowlands between cloud forested hills and the Pacific coast. The western lowlands are home to half the country's population, with a different racial mix that includes an African heritage from the slave trade that brings an easy-going style in contrast to the more conservative life of the highlands. Banana growing and shrimp farming are prime activities here.
Life in the country's largest city is one of everyday commercial bustle. As the local saying goes, 'Guayaquil earns the money, Quito spends it'.
A cruise along the river frontage overlooking the muddy waters of the wide Guayas river, presents a diorama of the city's history. The wealth brought by the cacao trade, when Ecuador was the world's largest exporter, is exemplified by the Mercado Sur, a palace of iron and glass designed and prefabricated in France by Eiffel himself; it is now an exhibition space. Dockside wharfs and warehouses convey the importance of the maritime trade, while the new Yacht Club expresses the city's international cool -- a theme extended by the new 'Malecon 2000', an attractive broad promenade of gardens, fountains, shops and restaurants that has helped the city to redefine itself with new confidence. Many of the fine buildings behind the Malecon have been impeccably restored.
At the end of the walkway, steps lead up to the lighthouse and church on Santa Ana Hill. This area was formerly a slum but with great vision and the support of local residents its large wooden houses have been renovated and colourfully painted, and the area turned into a pleasant mix of housing, gift shops, art galleries and cafés.
Other sights around the city include a modern cathedral fronted by a plaza whose trees are home to a profusion of iguanas, who come to the ground to be fed like ducks in the park. There are good Botanical Gardens too.
Ruta del Sol
From Chile to Peru, the Pacific coast of South America is chilled by the cold waters of the Humboldt current. Fortunately, its influence stops well south of Guayaquil so Ecuador's Pacific coast enjoys the warm waters of the tropics and many days of clear skies.
Resorts close to the city can be crowded, but the 'Ruta del Sol', the coast road north of Salinas to Manta, is a delight. Broadly speaking, the further north you go the quieter and nicer the beaches and coastal villages become, with a scattering of small hotels. Salinas itself has high rise blocks that attract the local well-to-do in la temporada -- Ecuadorians' holiday season from December to April.
Machalilla National Park
Towards the northern end of the Ruta del Sol, Machalilla national park is a real jewel. The main section of the park protects a full transect of vegetation from arid scrub and tropical dry forest near the sea, through moist forest, up to true cloud forest: great for hiking, birdwatching and just being out and about.
Within the park, the indigenous Manteño community of Agua Blanca welcomes visitors. Volunteers show you their village and the smallholdings where they grow grenadines, papaya, mango, oranges, limes, maize, chilli and much more. At the river the village laundry is washed by hand using the fruit of the barbasco tree as a soap. You may be invited to bathe in a sacred sulphur lake, where the whole community gathers for ceremonial bathing at solstices and equinoxes. A viewpoint looks from this dry lightly forested area towards the lush hills of San Sebastián.
An archaeological site near the village has been excavated to reveal the remains of three solar centres for measuring the sun's motion and a large ceremonial hall where stone jaguar thrones were positioned every 5 paces. A small museum contains relics and artefacts including thrones, funerary urns, tattoo stamps and spondylus shells which were used as currency. It is a fascinating glimpse of pre-Incan society, made possible by its direct descendants.
Also within the park is the beautiful bay of Los Frailes: a paradisiacal long sweep of fine sand, with little shade.
Isla de la Plata
9km offshore, Isla de la Plata is a small uninhabited island skirted by cliffs. It is home to colonies of Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed boobies, magnificent frigatebirds and, seasonally, waved albatross. Sea lion and fur seals are occasional visitors.
Isla de la Plata is well worth a visit at any time of year. Between June and October, Humpback Whales are regularly seen in the surrounding waters, along with large schools of dolphin and pods of Sperm, Pilot, False Killer and Killer Whales.
It is quite a stretch to compare Isla de la Plata with the Galapagos Islands, but the very pleasant day trip to the island goes some way to indicate what is on offer 600km further into the Pacific.