Fear and Perspective in Guayaquil, Ecuador

By June 28, 2018South America

When a 21 year old female solo traveler finds herself in Ecuador’s most infamous city, even a short walk to the bank feels like Mission Impossible.

“¿Hablas Español?” The taxi driver asked lazily as he loaded my pack into the boot. I don’t think he really cared whether yo hablo español or not, he just wanted my cab fare. After my long journey from Havana to the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil via Bogota, I wasn’t up for a broken conversation any more than he was. I was just craving a flat surface to sprawl on.
“Sólo un poquito,” I replied, shuffling into the back seat. That was the end of our conversation.

When describing cities, there are certain tropes used by writers to capture their “bustling” vibe and “soulful” lights. But the streets of Guayaquil were different. Eerie. Once we’d exited the freeway, we passed one single car in the space of thirty minutes. It was probably for the best though, as my driver sped happily through red traffic lights as if they were green. On the third occasion, I started to think he might be colour blind.

Not a single person walked the Malecón 2000 like they did in my guide book. There were no laughing couples at restaurants, nor people spilling onto the street from a bar dancing like I’d seen numerous times in Havana. Nothing. Just emptiness. I was relieved when we finally pulled up at my hotel, but the weight of my unease made it hard to get out of the car. I passed some bills to the taxista and clamored inside as quickly as possible. The receptionist smiled and it was a welcome contrast. He handed me my key and a few bits of paper I stuffed in my bag without much thought. Moments later, I was ushered upstairs to an enormous room and left to stew in my own discomfort.

“For a pleasant stay, please consider the following recommendations…” Started the card left on my pillow by the hotel, but I was too tired to read further. I showered and, feeling refreshed, settled back on my pillow. It was time to plan my free day.  Back in Australia, I had dutifully researched Guayaquil. While I collated a list of sights to see, I was also alerted to a few safety risks. But as with all travel warnings, I took them with a side of skepticism. After all, it’s the government’s job to be overcautious! Nothing I had read at home had given me the slightest inkling of danger.

Relaxing on the bed, I lazily turned my eyes back to the card on my pillow. The more I read, the more alarmed I began to feel. It continued: “Use only Hotel’s taxi services. Do not take taxis on the street. If you are at a different place, please call us to arrange your pick up. We suggest not to use your mobile phone in public areas. Avoid carrying or wearing jewelry. Carry only the amount of cash you need for one day. Take only one card with you and leave the rest in the hotel safe. Be suspicious of strangers who claim to know you, pretend to be friendly or offer cheap transportation.” The list went on and on and the all-too-familiar unease came crashing back as if someone had dumped a bucket of water over my head.

In a desperate attempt to rationalise my fear, I jumped onto Google and plugged in ‘is Guayaquil safe?’ The internet laughed at me. Dozens of websites featured articles warning travellers of its status as the largest and indeed most dangerous and violent city in Ecuador. Others adopted a more level tone, stating simply that it is not considered a safe place. I trawled through forums where tourists spoke of being stolen from, mugged at gunpoint and even kidnapped! They each pleaded to other travellers not to traverse the city alone, especially if they were female.

Several hours later, I tore my bleary eyes off my phone screen and analysed my room in a state of panic. I’m safe here, I thought to myself, but triple checked the door lock and sealed the windows anyway. Sleep did not come easily to me that night.

. . .

Three hours. That’s how much time it took me to psych myself up and leave the room. Forget breakfast, I was lucky to make it downstairs to eat in the hotel restaurant without having a full-blown panic attack. But I had a more important task at hand: retrieving money from an ATM. I walked up to the reception desk again and was greeted by a man with an even larger smile than his colleague of the night before. But in the light of day, with my knew-found knowledge, the sight was more unnerving than comforting. I felt like I was in a Jason Bourne movie and everyone around me was plotting my demise.

“Excuse me, señor.” He looked up, “Can you tell me where the nearest ATM is?” 
“¿Cajero automático?” he asked and I nodded, “just across the street.” He pointed to a small booth next to an empty shop-front. Most of my brain rationalised that it was safe in plain sight, but my amygdala kept screaming that it was exposed and I’d be ripe for the kidnapping. Every step closer to the exit required deep breaths and concentration. Just as I was about to step into the revolving door, a voice called out to me. I swung around to meet the eyes of the receptionist again.

“Tenga cuidado, señorita. La ciudad no es segura.” Be careful miss, the city is not safe. I wished I hadn’t understood this ominous statement.

. . .

“So, have you seen much of the city yet?” I asked the blonde girl from my tour group. She nodded emphatically. Our group had just met, and we’d decided to go out for dinner and drinks together. It was to be my first time leaving the hotel since my panic-stricken dash to the ATM that morning. Stepping out of the door was still unnerving, but far less so with five other people around me.

“I went out early this morning to explore. Managed to walk most of the Malecón, visit the Iguana park and walk up Santa Ana hill,” my new friend said, “I love this place! What about you?”

I shook my head, eyes lowered in embarrassment. Or was it concern? I couldn’t decide which one of us was crazy… the frightened girl who’d stayed locked in her hotel room, or the one who’d casually strolled around Guayaquil on her own, with no thought of fear or danger.

“Uh…” I started, choosing my words carefully, “not really. I had a lot of washing to do and wasn’t sure how safe the city was, so I mostly stayed in my hotel room.”

“Wait, the city isn’t safe? Huh. I had no idea,” she laughed and by the time we reached the esplanade, her fleeting concern had vanished. There I was, working myself into a panic at the idea of crossing the road and meanwhile, she’d been exploring the city with a smile on her face.

With new friends around me, the city started to feel less eerie. The strangers were no longer homicidal kidnappers waiting for their chance to attack. I began to relax, and finally started to notice the beauty of the place. Yes, perspective really is everything.

Cover Photo Credit: Teagan Dunn

Emma Calley

Author Emma Calley

‘Emma Calley is a young writer for Melbourne-based travel company InspiringVacations.com The only things that rival Emma’s love of good coffee are dogs and doing things that scare her.

More posts by Emma Calley

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Ed says:

    I feel this editorial is poor and one sided.
    Yes almost every South American country is dangerous.
    Yes tourism is a huge part of these countries enrichment and they’re are treated very good in most of this countries.

    There is much more positives than this.
    The culture, the people, the sights, the food.

    Guayaquil is not a touristy place.
    Is a big city, usually crowded and hot!

    Ecuador has beautiful beaches, wild forests, active volcanoes, the Galapagos islands and more.

    • Emma Calley says:

      Hi Ed,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry you feel that way about the article. In no way does the piece represent my views on South America as a whole, but was just a recount of my personal experience in one city. I went on to visit the Galápagos Islands and had the absolute time of my life. The piece was intended to represent how the internet can skew a perspective and build fear. I can’t wait to re-visit Ecuador one day and travel with an open mind 🙂

  • Sebastian says:

    Not sure of how much have you traveled across South America, but the fact that you still don’t understand how safety works there tells me that you are a beginner. The internet and the average tourist (white people especially) love romanticizing their “crazy adventure” and the dangers they experienced. In reality Ecuador is as safe as you make it. Don’t get on a random taxi, especially if you only speak “un poquito” of Spanish. Don’t walk through random areas without asking a local about it first. Don’t walk alone at night, etc. It is not being safe, it is just not being dumb. The hotel was nice enough to leave a reminder on how to do so. Guayaquil has many things to see and enjoy, and your article makes it sound like you just came back from Iraq. There is a couple million people living in that city that go out on the street every day, and believe it or not most of them make it back home safe. Not sure of what makes you or any other tourists different, appart from the fact that you evaluate safety from a first world perspective. No, Guayaquil is not Sidney, but if you know how to act you will be just fine. All I am trying to say, is that if I went to Australia I wouldn’t write a whole article on how I had a panic attack the moment I realized there were sharks, snakes, emus and platypus roaming free. Not because it is not true, but because it was obvious the moment I bought my ticket. I can’t just get there and then act all surprised and write a pseudo-yelp review bitchin’ about it. Hope you go back and with the right mind-set, that way not you neither the people dealing with your weird faces and attitudes will be annoyed.

    • Thanks for your comment Sebastian! I think there are a lot of young travelers who could relate to the writer’s experience, whether in Guayaquil or elsewhere around the world. Fear is often based on misunderstanding, and articles like this serve to challenge those assumptions rather than uphold them.

      • Marco says:

        It seems to be that some readers did not pay much attention to how the article ended “The strangers were no longer homicidal kidnappers waiting for their chance to attack. I began to relax, and finally started to notice the beauty of the place. Yes, perspective really is everything.” I am from Guayaquil, I love my city and this article will help tourist to be more open minded if they take their time to read all the way to the end “with an open mind” Good job Emma!

    • Alberto A Merchan says:

      I live and work drive in one of the safest city inthe wolrd NYC. Google it and you will find big amount of bad experiece in fact recently some took the wrong Uber car long story short She was raped and killed. BE CAREFUL EVERY WHERE YOU GO. BE ACCOMPANIED. YOUR THINKING ATTRACTS.

    • Adriana Santamaria says:

      You should. Danger is everywhere if you go to a bad neighborhood in your country the same thing can happen. Come with an open mind and don’t think everyone is out to get you.
      From: Adriana Santamaria, Ecuadorian.

  • Gladys L Tupacyupanqui says:

    The options of different individuals. I visited Ecuador in October of 2018 malecon beautiful. Ecuador has so much to offer

  • Sharon says:

    Women are more vulnerable than men when traveling any where. Need to keep that in mind. I am heading to Guyaquil and i plan to be careful and enjoy the experience but i am concerned for safety in anany large city.

  • Arjuna says:

    I just wanted to say, you’re an excellent writer.
    I’m not commenting on the subject matter, which has been well dealt with on both sides.
    I just adore the adroit delivery.

  • Hi Emma,
    I have traveled to 21 countries, over 40 different cities, including Dubabi, London, Paris, Rome etc.. have lived in NYC for 9 years and currently live in Miami. Every city I visited I ask the driver to take me to the ghetto so I can take the experiences of both worlds (the high end, tourist sites and the poor neighborhoods) and yes, Dubai has them as well.
    Guayaquil is a beautiful city that has so much to offer to the travelers, just like any city in the World, just be careful not be extremist. I found your article kind of funny at the beginning and I believe that it should have a better ending though you tried with only few words and oppose to all the negativity of the article, at leas 2 more paragraphs explaining the beauty of Guayaquil and their friendly people, delicious food, incredible architecture, the unique parque iguana, strolling parque 2000, the history behind Cerro Santana which is mind blowing, the night life is unique, the most high end mall in South America, Entre Rios and the list goes on and on. If you had the audacity to write your negative emotions because you read put of a pamphlet in your hotel room, I’m certain you have the intelligence to end your review in a longer and positive fashion. I hope my 2 cents of opinion helps.

    • Edi says:

      Hi Emma,

      I am from Ecuador and I know Guayaquil, actually I have family living there, I understand your fears when you get to the hotel, but it’s really funny how you described the whole panic experience you had in the hotel room, I thought I was reading a science fiction book, but I understand your point at the las 2 paragraphs just that I believe that you owe the article a few more writing about the beauty of the city and how NOT to be so scare of places, I believe anywhere you go you always have to take precautions and don’t do stupid things.

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