Guayaquil can’t be more different from its cool highlands sister, with whom it has a long-standing rivalry. It’s hot, sultry, carefree, and open. Formed by the dynamics of fire and water, it’s Ecuador’s most populous city.

Guayaquil has a fiery past -- literally. Although the city is quite ancient, it looks modern because it has been rebuilt so many times in the aftermaths of devastating fires. The city has also been shaped by its relationship to the Guayas River, a huge and powerful artery that shimmers like liquid silver at night but is muddy brown in the sunlight. For centuries, this navigable river and its prosperous port made Guayaquil a center of commerce and a target of pirates. The history of its struggle against those marauders is fascinating.

The most defining feature of Guayaquil is the malecón, a beautifully landscaped, lovingly maintained stretch along the banks of the Guayas. Even in the muggy heat of a summer day, a walk along the malecón is a treat, affording multiple opportunities to visit museums and restaurants. There are shady areas in the gorgeous gardens, whose aesthetic is accented by sculptures, monuments, and edifices that commemorate the city’s heroic past.

Around lunchtime, I visit the artisans’ market, where I meet a Lebanese-Italian named Joseph, who tells me about the waves of immigrants who have come here from China, Lebanon, Italy, and Germany. As we chat, Joseph explains that Guayaquil’s international commerce has fostered a spirit of tolerance that welcomes and integrates all newcomers. Even better, Joseph is a foodie who recommends great local restaurants to me.

Armed with information, I make plans for dinner. I feast on grilled prawns at Ristorante Riviera, where the service is extraordinary. Afterward, a nice, long, solitary stroll seems in order. It’s a sultry night, with soft breezes blowing, so I walk the malecón all the way to the Cerro Santa Ana, a historic neighborhood that only a decade ago was forgotten and decrepit. At its highest point stands a little chapel and a lighthouse. I climb the lighthouse’s spiral staircase and reach the top. The breezy lookout provides an unobstructed 360-degree view of Guayaquil. The serenity and beauty make me sigh.

The next day, I spend hours exploring the historic buildings and walking through the plazas to admire the monuments. The largest one is Plaza Centenario, a huge four-city-block expanse commemorating Guayaquil’s independence. But my favorite is the Parque Seminario, also known as the iguana park, where hundreds of friendly iguanas make their home. Once Guayaquil’s historic center, the Parque Seminario is the site of the impressive neo-Gothic-style Catedral de Guayaquil.

Guayaquil’s outstanding museums close on Mondays and Tuesdays in order to remain open on the weekends. So on Tuesday, I visit the city’s cemetery, Cementerio General Patrimonial de Guayaquil. Much about a people’s culture, history, and values can be gleaned from its burial grounds. This cemetery has more than 700,000 monuments, mausoleums, niches, and gravestones. Some of the monuments are spectacular and rival those that stand erected by the government on the plazas throughout the country. Others are museum-quality sculptures made of marble and alabaster and depict poignant scenes of hope and grief. Still others are family chapels where the ancestors of some of Guayaquil’s oldest and wealthiest families rest.

On my last night in Ecuador, friends take me to the restaurant Blu, where the nouvelle cuisine -- layered with Ecuadorian flavors and ingredients -- is remarkable. The lemon-verbena ice cream is especially wonderful, and I try to savor every last bite … and moment.

As I pack for my return to the United States, I experience a certain sadness about my impending departure from this land whose culture and environment I have been fully immersed in. But as I trek across the tarmac, my bag slung over my shoulder, I know this is just the first of many visits to Ecuador and with its hospitable, soft-spoken people. I climb the stairs of the aircraft, and as I reach the door, I look up and see Inti Raimi, the brilliant Ecuadorian sun, and I promise I will return.