Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, with a population in 2003 of about two million and a greater metropolitan area with some three million people. Located 40 miles (64 kilometers) upriver from the Gulf of Guayaquil, Guayaquil is situated at one of the best natural harbors on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The city lies at the mouth of the Guayas River basin, a zone of approximately 25,000 square miles (65,000 square kilometers) of exceptionally fertile land with countless navigable rivers. These geographic advantages have helped make Guayaquil the commercial heart of Ecuador.
The date and founder of the city are not agreed upon, although Guayaquil is most commonly believed to have been established in 1531 by Spanish conquistador Sebastían de Belalcázar. During the colonial period the city enjoyed a modest prosperity as a contraband entrepôt and the principal shipbuilding and repair center on the Pacific. On October 9, 1820, Guayaquil, weary of the burden of Spanish war taxes and trade restrictions, declared its independence, becoming a free city. However, after Simón Bolívar's fateful meeting with José San Martín on July 26, 1822, in Guayaquil, the city was joined to Gran Colombia (subsequently the nations of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama).
Agricultural exports have typically provided the mainstay of Guayaquil's economy. Cacao (chocolate beans), grown in the adjacent lowlands, became an increasingly important export from the late colonial era forward, and from the 1870s to the 1920s it dominated Ecuador's economy. During this period Ecuador emerged as the world's leading producer of cacao. Following the 1920s price collapse brought on by African competition, exports of cacao from the Guayaquil region lagged. In the 1950s, however, exports of bananas brought a new period of prosperity to the city and region, lasting until the early 1960s. Beginning in the 1970s Amazonian oil became the nation's chief export, eclipsing coastal products. Nevertheless, Guayaquil continues to serve as Ecuador's commercial center. The city is also home to such light industry, especially food processing, that the nation has.
Until the early twentieth century, Guayaquil had a special notoriety as a particularly disease-infested port. Beyond a high incidence of lethal endemic respiratory and digestive afflictions, epidemics—yellow fever, bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid, and smallpox—repeatedly haunted the city.
Culturally, Guayaquil is distinct from the highland city of Quito, the capital and the nation's second largest city. Indeed, the cities may be viewed as hostile competitors, two separate regional power bases in a nation profoundly divided by geography. Racism has informed this contentiousness. Historically, and sometimes even into the early twenty-first century, many white quiteños regarded Guayaquil as uncommonly ugly, irreligious, and crass, peopled by racially "inferior" and "illegitimate" mixed-blood montuvios. At the same time, many guayaquileños (people from Guayaquil) considered quiteños (people from Quito) to be prideful and sanctimonious, their ostentatious piety wrought with hypocrisy. Guayaquileños have tended to be more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and open than their sometimes reserved, provincial, and stern serrano (highland people) counterparts.
This contention between Guayaquil and Quito, coast and the sierra (highlands), has punctuated Ecuadorian politics. For Guayaquil, the principal difficulty has been that while taxes on its commerce nearly always provided the most important source of government revenue, these funds were controlled by the national government in Quito. This led to recurrent clashes between the cities. Because Quito and the sierra were more populous than Guayaquil and the coast, the capital prevailed in the struggles; Quito continually claimed the largest share of government outlays. Battles between regionally based caudillos, sometimes representing the elite in each region, have traditionally vexed Ecuador. During the cacao years, the prosperity of Guayaquil and the coast brought the two regions into closer balance, but following the collapse of cacao the advantage shifted back to Quito. After World War II the rise of mass urbanization in Guayaquil, coupled with the export boom in bananas, began a reconfiguration of regional political power, a development reflected in the emergence of coastal-based populist leader José María Velasco Ibarra (president in 1934–1935, 1944–1947, 1952–1956, 1960–1961, and 1968–1972). But by the late twentieth century the flood of tax revenues from the export of Oriente oil freed Quito from its fiscal dependence on Guayaquil.
The city has prospered in recent years since the late twentieth century, possibly due to its emerging role as a illegal drug money laundering center, a situation further stimulated by the Ecuadorian adoption of the dollar as the national currency in 2000. In that year the city completed a significant urban renewal project, opening a beautiful new river walk (the malecón) along the Guayas River.
Clayton, Lawrence A. Caulkers and Carpenters in a New World: The Shipyards of Colonial Guayaquil. Athens: Ohio University, 1980.
Estrada Ycaza, Julio. El hospital de Guayaquil. 2nd ed. Guayaquil, Ecuador: 1974. Publicaciónes del Archivo Histórico del Guayas. One of Estrada Ycaza's innumerable books and articles in Spanish on Guayaquil.
Hamerly, Michael T. Historia social y económica de la antigua provincia de Guayaquil, 1763–1842. Guayaquil, Ecuador: Archivo Historico del Guayas, 1973. Provides socioeconomic data. Also available in English as "A Social and Economic History of the City and District of Guayaquil during the Late Colonial and Independence Periods" (PhD diss., University of Florida, 1970).
Pineo, Ronn F. "Misery and Death in the Pearl of the Pacific: Public Health Care in Guayaquil, Ecuador, 1870–1925." Hispanic American Historical Review 70, no. 4 (1990): 609-638.
Pineo, Ronn F. Economy, Society, and the Politics of Urban Reform: Guayaquil, Ecuador, 1870–1925. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. A profile of the city.
Roberts, Lois Crawford de. El Ecuador en la época del cacaotera. Quito: Editorial Universitaria, 1980. On the cacao era in Guayaquil and Ecuador. Also available in English as Lois Johnson Weinman, "Ecuador and Cacao: Domestic Responses to the Boom-Collapse Monoexport Cycle" (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1970).
Townsend, Camilla. Tales of Two Cities: Race and Economic Culture in Early Republican North and South America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. Compares the social realities in Guayaquil to those found in Baltimore, Maryland.