This tropical city of more than two million people spreads out along the banks of the chocolate-colored Guayas River, about 12 miles inland from the Gulf of Guayaquil. The river, navigable for the largest of ocean vessels, makes Guayaquil one of the Pacific’s most important and best-protected ports. Approximately 85% of Ecuador’s exports flows through this port and down the Guayas River to the outside world. Guayaquil is a city of industry, oil and sugar refineries, cement mills, breweries, and several other factories concentrated along the crowded riverbanks. For travelers, it is primarily a gateway to the Galapagos Islands as well as to the rest of the country. The city itself offers an interesting history. In July 1822, the two greatest Latin American heroes, Bolivar and San Martin, met for secret negotiations to determine the fate of Guayaquil. As a result, the city was incorporated into Gran Colombia, a union comprised of Venezuela and Colombia. Later, the country was annexed by the Viceroyalty of Peru until the war of independence from Spanish rule started in 1809. Ecuador is only about the size of Colorado, but the country offers remarkable and beautiful contrasts. Many visitors claim it to be their favorite country in South America. Ecuador’s scenic capital, Quito, can be reached via a 45-minute flight from Guayaquil. Lush green hillsides, snow-capped volcano cones and brilliant sunshine combine to make Quito a charming surprise. But it is the Galapagos Islands that rank at the top of most visitors’ itineraries. Called by the Spanish Encantadas, or enchanted isles, this cluster of volcanic islands lies 600 miles off the coast and just south of the equator. Their claim to fame originated with Charles Darwin. It was during his voyage on the HMS Beagle when he made his scientific observations that eventually led to his theory of evolution as outlined in The Origin of Species. In 1959, the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s famous book, the government of Ecuador and the International Darwin Foundation established, with the support of UNESCO, the Charles Darwin Research Station at Academy Bay, one mile from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. At the same time, the islands were designated by the government as a National Park in order to protect and preserve the many unique animals and plants found in the Galapagos. In 1979, the United Nations declared the islands a World Heritage Site. Caution: Guests are advised not to carry any valuables ashore and to be mindful of their belongings at all times in the city.