Guayaquil cemeteryOn a recent Saturday afternoon in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I was photographing the beautiful sculptures in the city’s main cemetery when an irritable policeman materialized by my side and hustled me off the premises. A few days later, another policeman told me not to go into a neighborhood. A local man on his balcony shook his head at my choice of walks and pointed back to the touristy area. “Peligroso,” they all warned. Dangerous. 

 Blanquita Rivera dislikes this attitude. “People have social resentment because other people say not to go into their neighborhoods,” she said. “We’re trying to go against that.”

 I met Rivera while staying at El Manso, a boutique hotel in downtown Guayaquil. Rivera runs tours from El Manso. She is most enthusiastic about an evening bike tour. Biking Ecuador’s largest city–whose reputation includes poverty, danger, crime and grime—does not occur to most visitors. But Rivera insists her tours give travelers a whole different appreciation of the city’s people. “If you go to what we call a ‘poor neighborhood,’ not everybody is poor, but more identify with indigenous rather than Western culture,” she said. “Travelers can feel the difference. There’s much more community. People are always sitting in the street, drinking, playing cards.” Rivera’s mother is from a neighborhood the group visits on the tour. 

The bike tourists dine with local families. Rivera tries to find houses shared by three generations, as this is unusual for many European and North American visitors. Dinner features simple indigenous foods, such as green plantains and lentils.

Eating lentils with a poor family is a far cry from many tourists’ idea of vacation. What gives?

Ecuador is on the forefront of the conscious travel movement. Starting in 2008, it was the first country to include the rights of nature in its constitution: “Rights of Nature recognize the Earth and all its ecosystems as a living being with inalienable rights: to exist, to live free of cruel treatment, to maintain vital processes necessary for the harmonious balance that supports all life.”

Conscious travel is an extension of this idea of ecosystem harmony. Instead of just decompressing at a beach or resort, conscious travel calls for a lot more. As the Ecuador delegation put it in a concept paper presented to the Organisation of American States, “Conscious tourism is a covenant in which travel agents in communities of origin and destination and tourists pledge to co-exist with, have a sense of responsibility and mutual respect for, and commune with the natural and cultural heritage.” 

El Manso boutique hotel in Guayaquil EcuadorRicardo Cevallos opened El Manso to align with the ideal of conscious travel. Every trip should be a time to transform your consciousness, Cevallos posits, not just a vacation.

 El Manso manages to be both responsible and stylish. Visitors can choose from shared hostel or private rooms, each with a theme. I stayed in the Tangerine Room, where all the accents were orange. A basket of reasonably priced indigenous snacks awaited me in my room, including excellent Pacari brand organic Ecuadorian chocolate bars (I recommend the Cuzco pink salt & nibs), sweet potato chips, banana/passionfruit jam and bottles of local wines.

As part of the family that runs the Latin American travel magazine Transport, Cevallos is familiar with the attitudes towards tourism in neighboring countries. “Ecuador has a different vision,” he said. “With this vision of conscious tourism, Ecuador is way ahead of what’s happening in the region.”

Cevallos opened El Manso in 2008. “Guayaquil used to be dangerous city,” he said. “Dirty. A lot of social problems and crime.” But from 1996 on, the city’s mayors made a concerted effort to clean up the port city’s image. Cevallos saw an opportunity to fill the gap between luxury chain hotels and small filthy hostels.

quinoa burger at El MansoEl Manso also offers a mostly vegetarian restaurant on premises. Most of the other veg options in Guayaquil are Asian or soy-based. “We wanted to do something Ecuadorian,” Cevallos said. “Lots of local ingredients. Quinoa, grains.”

The third function Cevallos wished to fill was a salon. “Culture was low in Guayaquil,” he said. “We wanted to provide a relaxed cultural place, not stuffy, for local people.”

The night I first met Cevallos and Rivera, El Manso was serving just such a purpose. I was the only non-Spanish speaker at a monthly party called Escaparate, where a guest cook prepares specialty hor d’oeuvres. Loads of friends and acquaintances stay late into the night.

Blanquita Teresa and HugoHugo Gonzalez, a local lawyer, attends many events at El Manso. The venue has opened up alternative cultural vistas for him. “Life in the office and court are very different from being at the Manso,” he told me.

El Manso also hosts speakers, shows documentaries and offers early morning yoga classes. One day I emerged from my room into a tango lesson.

El Manso’s conscious travel offerings continue to expand. Rivera is young, energetic, and full of ideas to showcase Guayaquil. Next she hopes to launch a tour to a favela, a poor, mostly black neighborhood on an island in the Guayas River. The current poor neighborhood she tours has basic services and paved streets. The favela doesn’t. She’s working on a plan to get locals to ferry guests to Isla Trinitaria, where they can visit a dance school where people practice to marimba music, then have dinner with a family.

“A different type of tourist stays at the Manso,” she said. Yep. Those who are conscious, or at least aspire to be.

El Manso Boutique Hotel