Sprawled along the mighty Guayas River just a few miles from the Pacific Coast, Guayaquil is so much more than just the “Gateway to the Galápagos.”  It’s also Ecuador’s financial center and largest city, rife with unique and interesting things to see and do. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, most of Guayaquil’s colonial buildings burned down in a massive fire in 1896, but the hilltop neighborhood of Las Peñas still has 400-year-old houses, painted bright colors, and the cobblestone streets are filled with cafes, restaurants, and artists’ galleries. Walk along the riverfront on the Malecón Simon Bolivar, part of Guayaquil’s urban renewal plans, past the neoclassical Town Hall, South America’s largest Ferris wheel, and a museum of pre-Columbian and contemporary Ecuadorian art. This is where the city comes to stroll, to play, to dine, and to hop aboard a boat traveling up or down river. If you only have a day or two to explore, consider these five suggestions from our experts.  —Text by Sunshine Flint

Parque Histórico 
Escape the hustle of the city for a lush, tropical oasis. In this beautiful 20-acre park set on the Daule River, learn about Guayaquil’s 19th-century history and the region’s natural flora and fauna. The park, which opened in 1997, features three distinct sections: explore the charming buildings of the Urban Architecture Area, observe customs in the Traditions Area, and in the Wildlife Area and Zoo, spot ocelots, spider monkeys, harpy eagles, and 42 other kinds of animals and birds. The whole family can explore the animal sanctuary on a scavenger hunt to find rare plants and wildlife, and kids will love taking photos to complete the checklist. It’s also possible to arrange a private guided tour of the zoo.

Chocolate Making Experience
Don’t leave Guayaquil without trying another fun (and delicious) experience—learning to make chocolate. Ecuador went through a cacao boom over a century ago, an era called “Pepa de Oro,” and for 20 years it was the world’s leading cacao exporter, which transformed the country’s economy as well as Guayaquil’s. At the Museo de Cacao y Chocolate, also set in Parque Histórico, you’ll have the unique opportunity to be part of the whole process, from selecting your own cacao pods to watching them transform into artisanal chocolate through traditional methods and hand-powered tools. And, of course, enjoying your finished product.

Hacienda La Danesa
Experience the natural beauty of Ecuador’s coastal lowlands on a day trip to this working dairy, teak, and cacao farm, founded in 1870, and owned by a Danish-Ecuadorian family. By special arrangement with the owners, you can explore the estate’s 1,200 acres of fields and forests on horseback, take part in chocolate making, milk the dairy cows and sample some fresh, unpasteurized milk, or for those who are a bit more adventurous go for a mountain bike ride or tubing on the river. Back at the hacienda, indulge in an al fresco lunch on the terrace and dine on sustainable farm-to-table cuisine.

Seminario Park (aka Parque de las Iguanas)
On first glance this serene park, located just a few blocks from the Malecón, looks like any other beautiful green space—it’s filled with tall trees, manicured gardens, and a pond teeming with fish. But the main draw is something you’ve likely not seen anywhere else—dozens of resident green iguanas, who can be found in every corner, sunning themselves on the pavement, or resting high in the tree branches under the shade. The lizards are tame and completely habituated to people, many of whom come to feed them. Be sure to bring your camera to take plenty of pictures of these ‘mini-dragons’ who reign the park, as well as capture the ornate, neo-Gothic Metropolitan Cathedral of Guayaquil which rises majestically from across the street.

Casa Julian Restaurant
Located adjacent to Hotel del Parque in a restored 19th-century building with a pillared front and ornate balconies, this elegant restaurant and bar serves haute Ecuadorian cuisine in a sophisticated setting. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Casa Julian also serves afternoon tea during the week, and they make their own infusions, brewed from the medicinal herbs grown in the neighboring gardens.

Join us in Guayaquil at the Hotel del Parque. Intimate and welcoming with a gracious, golden-age aura, this elegant boutique hotel—the first in the city—makes a fitting bookend to your Galápagos expedition aboard the yacht-scaled National Geographic Islander.