The Culture of Ecuador
Ecuador’s distinct culture is as vibrant and beautiful as the hand woven tapestries of its local artisans. Stemming from its long and rich history, Ecuadorian culture includes a fair mix of indigenous practices along with European colonial influence. Almost everyone in Ecuador has a mixed-race background, which has resulted in tremendous cultural diversity as well as unique customs and traditions across the whole country.
Generally speaking, the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians are Spanish-speaking Catholics, but as it becomes a more integrated and globalized nation each year, this is changing.
In all of Ecuador’s major cities, Spanish is the official language. Especially in cities where tourism is not a booming business, like Guayaquil and other smaller towns, it can actually be hard to find people who do speak English. Interestingly, in the rural highlands, it is not uncommon to find someone who speaks both Spanish and Quichua (an indigenous variation of the ancient Inca Quechua tongue).
In recent years, the burgeoning tourism industry has introduced English as a second language in many destination cities, like Quito, the Galapagos Islands, and Baños. In fact, the Sierra highland city of Cuenca has become the home of one of the foremost American expat communities, and English is
widely spoken there. Since English is used internationally as a language of business, all schools in Ecuador have it as a language requirement, and the number of bilingual primary and secondary schools and language institutes is on the rise as well.
Food & Cuisine of Ecuador
With three different regions in the mainland – coast, highlands, and rainforest – the typical cuisine varies depending on where you are. No matter where you go, rice is a staple part of the diet, and soups and stews are very popular. Tubers, like potatoes and yuca, are also an essential part of the Ecuadorian gastronomy, and plantains also generally accompany most plates.
In the highlands, trout and cuy (guinea pig) are popular delicacies. The coastal region is renowned for its delectable seafood, especially the ceviche (typically shrimp or other shellfish prepared in lime juice with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro and served with popcorn or fried plantain chips). Another popular plate is encebollado, a fish soup that has gained a reputation as a national dish. Other plates include chicken, beef, and pork, prepared in a variety of rich sauces and marinades.
Because of the fertile soils and the humid tropical climate of the coast, Ecuador also produces a stunning variety of fruits and vegetables, most notably bananas (known in Ecuador as “guineos”), melons, and other exotic fruits like guava, passion fruit, soursop, star fruit, and achotillo, just to name a few.
Surveys indicate that about 94% of Ecuadorians are Roman Catholic, a result of the Spanish colonial influence. Because of this, holiday seasons like Christmas and Easter are particularly fascinating times to visit Ecuador. However, since Ecuador has freedom of religion, there are small populations of other Christian groups like Adventists, Mormons, and Evangelicals, and also an extremely small, but present Jewish population, along with a scattering of other religions.
Customs often include musical celebrations, long processions and walks, and many other engaging displays. Novenas
are a common tradition in the Latin Catholic church, in which the community will host walks or services for the nine days before a holy day in pious preparation and prayer.
During the Advent season, in preparation for Christmas, live nativities and Christmas pageants are a common sight. On Christmas Eve, communities will often perform the Posadas
, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn in Bethlehem. Another tradition is toasting with the eggnog liquor rompope
and enjoying a ham or turkey dinner with family.
Ecuadorian Festivals, Holidays & Traditions
New Year’s Eve:
Just a week after Christmas, this is another big holiday in Ecuador, complete with a turkey or ham dinner, a toast to the old year with wine or sangria, and the eating of 12 grapes for luck in each coming month of the new year. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, a fun tradition is setting off fireworks and the burning of the “Monigote,”
papier-mache figures that can range from one meter to an impressive 5 meters.
Carnaval, Lent, and Easter:
Although Ecuador certainly doesn’t rival Brazil’s Carnaval (Mardi Gras) celebration, Ecuador’s traditions are pretty fun. In the two days before Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season, there is a national holiday during which it is common that people “play Carnaval
,” meaning chasing each other with water balloons, powdered paint, and spray foam. Once Lent has started, a somber mood of reflection and penitence can be felt throughout Ecuador in preparation for Good Friday. If you are lucky enough to be in Ecuador for Holy Week, you might see a Via Crucis
, or the “Way of the Cross.” This is a live version of the Stations of the Cross in which the community reenacts the sentencing and crucifixion of Jesus, often with very realistic displays.
Day of the Dead:
As in many Hispanic countries, the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos
) is a chance for people to pay homage to their deceased family members. This is usually accompanied by family visits to the cemetery to light candles or lay flowers on the grave of their loved ones, and then followed by big celebrations, parades, and community parties.
: Ecuador celebrates its definitive independence from Spain on May 24, the day in 1822 when the combined forces of Simon Bolivar, San Martin, and Antonio Jose de Sucre successfully defeated the Spanish army at the famed Battle of Pichincha in the Ecuadorian Andes.
In many South American countries, especially Colombia and Ecuador, beauty pageants are a fun way for communities to come together and help support and empower teenage girls as leaders in their towns.
Art, Architecture, and Music
Despite its small size, Ecuador is a major cultural center for arts in South America. Most consider Quito to be the cultural capital as well as the political capital, and a visit to the well appointed art museum shows why. Ecuador is the birthplace of famous painters like Oswaldo Guayasamin, Camilo Egas, and Manuel Rendon, as well as great writers like Juan Montalvo, Juan Leon Mera, and Juan Benigo Vela (all three from the highland city of Ambato).
Ecuador is also famous for its talented artisans. The city of Otavalo, north of Quito, has one of the largest indigenous markets in South America, where travelers can find beautifully woven clothes, tapestries, leatherwork, intricately carved wood, and gorgeous jewelry.
When traveling through Ecuador, especially in Quito and Cuenca, the architecture alone is enough to make you marvel. The most prominent style is the well-preserved colonial architecture. In fact, Quito’s historic center was named as UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site. Quito is also home to the impressive Gothic masterpiece La Basilica del Voto Nacional and the Baroque emblem La Compania de Jesus Jesuit cathedral.
Common instruments in Ecuador include the drums, guitars, bamboo and pan flutes, and other small string instruments, like the charango, and it is always fun when you hear some of your favorite contemporary tunes, like the Sound of Silence
, being played by an indigenous band.
Two of the most popular activities in Ecuador are soccer and dancing. The whole country rallies behind the “Tricolor” or “La Seleccion” (Ecuador’s national team), and there is a fierce rivalry between the major soccer clubs of Emelec, Barcelona, and La Liga de Quito. When people aren’t watching soccer, many enjoy playing soccer wherever they are able, whether on a grass field, a concrete court, or even just in the street with friends. Volleyball and tennis are other popular sports in Ecuador.
To relax, there’s a buzzing weekend culture of discotecas,
or nightclubs, that pump up the music for a night full of salsa, bachata, merengue, and other styles of dance.
For all of the wonderful parts of Ecuador’s culture, there is pervasive misogyny that affects much of the country. In Spanish, this is known as Machismo
, and is responsible for conservative beliefs that it is the woman’s responsibility to tend to domestic responsibilities like raising the children, cleaning the house, and preparing the food. It also lends itself to an exaggerated idea of what masculinity means. Progressive ideas have started to erode this centuries-old sexism, but it will be a difficult battle against these strongly ingrained values.