As ships sail inland from the Pacific Ocean on their way to Guayaquil, they sail past a tropical background of green jungles, mangrove swamps and lush plantations that belie the region’s once proud history as one of the grandest seaports in all of South America.
It was two hours before sunrise when our luxury cruise ship turned into the Gulf of Guayaquil and began to weave its way along the Rio Guayas to the bustling port city of Guayaquil some 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.
Located in the southwest corner of tiny Ecuador, Guayaquil is one of four distinct regions in the country that include the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon basin and the Andean Sierra. Its strategic location makes it a convenient gateway to all of these places, and to the lush valleys, plantations and jungles that ring the city and seem ready to overgrow it.
Like the rest of the country, Guayaquil was ruled by a group of tribes called the Canari who were eventually conquered by the Incas in 1463 and then the Spanish in 1532. Over the next 300 years, Guayaquil became one of the leading ports in South America where the Spanish built grand churches and public buildings.
Unfortunately, most of these early buildings were destroyed by earthquakes and fires in the late 19th century, and the city has been struggling ever since to recover its lost grandeur. As a result, some visitors prefer to travel northeast to the capital of Quito or southeast to the charming city of Cuenca where there are still original examples of the country’s colonial architecture.
Indeed, a significant number of people on our cruise opted for excursions to either Quito or Cuenca, which require a flight from Guayaquil, cost between US$400 to $500 per person, and take between 10 to 11 hours to complete. Others decided to take a 13-hour tour of the Galapagos Islands ($1,944 per person) which departed the ship at 7:00 am. Luckily, these types of lengthy land excursions were possible from Guayaquil because our ship was staying in port for 17 hours instead of the standard 9 to 10-hour visit.
Despite the appeal of getting up at 5:30 am for 12-hour excursion, my wife Gail and I decided to take a six-hour bus tour of the lush valleys that that surround Guayaquil.
Our first stop was the Ecuagenera, a research centre and nursery started in the mid-20th century to protect one of Ecuador’s most precious natural resources, the orchid. There are more than 4,000 species of the orchid in Ecuador, making the country one of the world’s most richly populated areas of the magnificent flower. During our short tour of the Ecuagenera, our guide told us how orchids are cultivated and grown, and then took us through a greenhouse where we saw dozens of different types of orchids in full bloom.
After leaving the Ecuagenera, we continued along the highway to the Hacienda El Castillo. The hacienda is a working farm that grows a variety of local crops including cacao (used to make chocolate), mango, noni (whose juice supposedly is good for treating diabetes and cholesterol), achiote (saffron), cashew nuts, bananas and hardwood trees, including teak.
While not as traditional as the haciendas found in the central and northern highlands of Ecuador, the 300-hectare estate features lovely grounds, a handsome hacienda, an open-air restaurant, and a small processing facility where cacao beans are collected, dried, roasted, sliced and made into delicious chocolate.
During our tour in extremely humid temperatures that hovered around 32°C (low 90s F), we walked through tropical green fields and forests with local field hands who told us about the two types of cacao trees in Ecuador and how the country provides 70 per cent of the world’s supply of beans. We tasted samples of the cacao bean during various points of its production into chocolate, and enjoyed some of the fauna in the form of beautiful black and yellow birds, brightly coloured butterflies, and even a one-metre long iguana that sauntered down a tree trunk right in front of us.
Following our tour, we returned to the Castillo for an Ecuadorian-style lunch of steak, rice, plantain and cheese pie, braised lentils, squash and fruit with freshly made chocolate sauce all served outdoors on a beautiful patio atop a hill overlooking the fields. Then we picked up some chocolate at the gift shop, and made our way back into Guayaquil to board our ship, the Crystal Symphony.
While we hadn’t made the trek to Quito or Cuenca to see the country’s legacy of colonial architecture, or spent a day in the Galapagos Islands watching the amazing giant tortoises and marine iguanas, we had seen a part of Ecuador that was rich with lush flora and tropical scenery. And equally important, we had made it back to the ship in time for late afternoon cocktails by the pool!