Quito may be the historical and political capital of Ecuador, but Guayaquil is the country's largest city and its economic motor. It's also the primary gateway to the Galápagos Islands, with virtually every flight to and from the archipelago touching down here. Guayaquil has undergone an impressive transformation in recent years, and is no longer a dangerous, dirty, and inhospitable port city. Guayaquil today boasts a beautiful riverfront promenade, the Malecón Simón Bolívar, and a host of excellent hotels, restaurants, shops, clubs, and casinos.

Guayaquil is also the gateway to vast stretches of Ecuador's Pacific coast and several prime beaches. This area has been dubbed the Ruta del Sol, or Route of the Sun, with everything from large resort destinations to tiny beach getaways to secret surf spots. At the northern end of the Ruta del Sol lies Machalilla National Park and Isla de la Plata, a lovely offshore island often described as an alternative to the Galápagos Islands. That is a stretch, but the wildlife-viewing and snorkeling at Isla de la Plata are superb. Tourists and Ecuadoreans looking for some fun in the sun aren't the only ones to take advantage of this section of coast. Late June through September, the waters here are a prime mating and breeding ground for humpback whales, and an excellent place to get up close and personal with these amazing mammals.

Finally, because I'm talking about gateways, just 253km (157 miles) south of Guayaquil lies Peru -- many travelers heading by land down to Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima will pass through here en route.