For years, GUAYAQUIL was regarded as one of Ecuador's most dangerous cities, dogged by high crime rates and suffering from a general breakdown in law and order. However, after a round of night-time curfews and clean-up campaigns, and following a major redevelopment of key downtown areas, the city has improved beyond measure and is shaking off its former notoriety, with the central district now an unthreatening and surprisingly likeable place. Indeed, if you've just come down from the sierra, the city's energy and intensity can be exhilarating, and its sophisticated shops and restaurants can make for a real treat. But outside the well-to-do areas, and the sparkling and heavily patrolled attractions of the waterfront and city centre, Guayaquil quickly loses its charm – its dynamism turns to chaos, its heat and humidity become oppressive, and its litter-strewn streets seem unsafe to wander.
Away from downtown, Guayaquil's general scruffiness belies the fact that it's the country's wealthiest city, thanks mainly to its massive port that handles major national exports like bananas, shrimp, cacao and coffee. It's Ecuador's largest city, too, with a population of more than 2.3 million people to Quito's 1.4 million. Although the rivalry between the two cities is deep-seated and taken very seriously, particularly during electoral campaigns, Guayaquil still lags well behind the capital for its historical attractions, with only a smattering of colonial buildings still standing (most of the others having been destroyed in the 1942 earthquake). Nonetheless, Quito has nothing like Guayaquil's gleaming riverside development, the Malecón 2000, which incorporates gardens, shopping centres, restaurants, a landmark museum, cinema and gallery, and several of the city's most famous monuments, and links downtown to the Cerro Santa Ana, once a dangerous slum now ingeniously reinvented as a beacon of urban renewal, and Las Peñas, the city's most charming historic district. As well as being a huge source of local pride, the new Malecón symbolizes a city transforming itself from a place once visited out of necessity rather than choice, into a genuine tourist destination in its own right, not just a transport hub to be escaped as quickly as possible.