An excited crowd had gathered in Parque Bolivar, in the heart of Ecuador's biggest city and commercial capital, Guayaquil. While enthusiastically chanting and whistling, the locals weren't there for a political rally, though the park is dominated by a stirring equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar, who led the struggle for liberation from Spain 200 years ago.

Nor were they taking part in a religious procession, though one side of the park is bounded by Guayaquil's cathedral, an impressive structure with an ornate facade and beautiful stained glass windows, though it only dates from 1948.

Nor were they celebrating a win by Guayaquil's famous football team, Barcelona Sporting Club, the most successful in Ecuador.

No, the focus of attention was a battle for supremacy between several of the park's magnificent land iguanas - several well over a metre long - with enormous snapping jaws.

An unusual - possibly unique - feature of Guayaquil is the way these scary-looking creatures are allowed to rule the downtown parks in this bustling city.

In the Parque del Centenario, created to mark a century of independence, the centrepiece may be the magnificent liberty column surrounded by statues of founding fathers, but there's no doubt the iguanas are in charge.

Sometimes you see them perched improbably high in the trees, looking in imminent danger of falling. Often you'll find a few sunning themselves on the paths with total disregard for the crowds pouring past.

But mostly they stride arrogantly across the lawns and flowerbeds of the parks, looking for crisp, fresh leaves to eat, ignoring the attentions of mere humans, unless there's a chance of stealing someone's lunch.

"The people of Guayaquil are very proud of their green iguanas," said our guide, Leticia. "They are the symbol of the city."

To prove the point, she took us to a small park with a huge statue of an iguana, several metres high, that glittered brilliantly. Guayaquil isn't a beautiful city - it's too modern for that - but it does have plenty of other attractions. There is, for instance, an impressive amount of art in public spaces. Statues, admittedly mostly of independence leaders or past presidents, are everywhere and several go beyond being mere representations.

Structures like motorway supports are mostly covered in mosaics and paintings - "to keep away the graffiti", says Leticia.

What really impressed me was the programme of putting blow-ups of serious artwork on the walls of public buildings in spaces which in Auckland would be filled by advertising billboards. The highlight of Guayaquil, however, is the Malecon, a 2.5km promenade along the banks of the mighty Rio Guayas, the river that has made this such an important port city.

This is a wonderful example of urban renewal - once again something Auckland could learn from - turning what was once a commercial slum into a magnificent place to walk and play, exercise and eat, celebrate and shop. It's a fantastic place for a stroll or a picnic - and unlike most of Guayaquil's parks, you wouldn't have to watch out for an iguana nicking your sandwiches.

Getting there: LAN Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Santiago with onward connections to Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador.

Getting around: World Journeys offer several packages covering the best of Ecuador. Phone 0800 11 73 11.

Further information: To find out more about visiting Ecuador see

Jim Eagles went to Ecuador with help from Lan Airlines and World Journeys.