250km (155 miles) NW of Cuenca; 420km (261 miles) SW of Quito; 966km (600 miles) E of the Galápagos

Guayaquil is Ecuador's most populous and economically vibrant city. Still, most visitors to Ecuador only look upon Guayaquil as a necessary overnight stop on the way to the Galápagos Islands. But that is changing, and the city continues to reinvent itself at a dizzying pace. At the helm since 2000, Mayor Jaime Nebot has instituted a far-reaching urban-renewal project that has already had impressive results. The Malecón Simón Bolívar -- the city's main riverfront promenade -- and the restored and revitalized waterfront neighborhoods of Cerro Santa Ana (Santa Ana Hill) and Las Peñas are emblematic of Nebot's impact. Whereas crime was once rampant and problematic, Guayaquil is now a relatively safe and tourist-friendly city. Perhaps the city's greatest problem is the sometimes-oppressive heat and humidity. Nevertheless, you'll find early mornings, late afternoons, and evenings all very agreeable for taking in the city's pleasures.

Although Guayaquil was founded in 1537, it lacks the colonial architecture that you find in Quito and Cuenca. A devastating fire ravaged the city in 1896, almost completely leveling it. Virtually no buildings escaped the blaze, and today the city has a more modern and contemporary feel than any other major city in Ecuador.

La Rivalidad: Quito & Guayaquil -- The fierce and ongoing political rivalry between the country's two principal cities, Quito and Guayaquil, was first publicly expressed in 1830 by independence heroes Juan José Flores and Vicente Rocafuerte, during the Republic's declaration of independence. During the latter half of the 19th century, García Moreno's decision to grant the Catholic Church almost absolute authority over Conservative Quito increased the polarization between the Sierra and coastal regions. This regional division was even more firmly entrenched with the rise to power of Liberal leader Eloy Alfaro, who reversed García Moreno's act and called for the separation of church and state. The back-and-forth battle for presidential power between the Liberals from Guayaquil and Conservatives from Quito dominated the political landscape during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The rivalry inevitably spread from politics and religion to include nearly every aspect of the social, economic, and cultural life of the country. And it is still raging strong today -- both Quito and Guayaquil claim to be the country's most important city. Guayaquil bases its case on the fact that it is the country's largest and most economically important city, functioning as Ecuador's major shipping port and commercial center. Quito, on the other hand, claims its supremacy on the basis of its political power, its better educational opportunities, and its role as the country's physical and administrative center. Stereotypes also exist: Those from Guayaquil consider themselves much more open-minded, liberal, cheerful, and boisterous than their counterparts in the capital, while Quiteños regard themselves as more hardworking, better educated, and generally calmer than Guayaquileños. Today, one of the fiercest battlegrounds for this historic rivalry takes place on the fields and in the stands whenever the cities' fútbol teams compete.