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Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador

History and Culture of Ecuador

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The history of pre-Inca Ecuador is lost in a misty tangle of time and legend, and the earliest historical details date back only as far as the 11th century AD. It is commonly believed that Asian nomads reached the South American continent by about 12,000 BC and were later joined by Polynesian colonizers. Centuries of tribal expansion, warfare and alliances resulted in the relatively stable Duchicela lineage, which ruled more or less peacefully for about 150 years until the arrival of the Incas around 1450 AD.

Despite fierce opposition, the conquering Incas soon held the region, helped by strong leadership and policies of intermarriage. War over the inheritance of the new Inca kingdom weakened and divided the region on the eve of the arrival of the Spanish invaders.

The first Spaniards landed in northern Ecuador in 1526. Pizarro reached the country in 1532 and spread terror among the Indians with the aid of his conquistadors' horses, armor and weaponry. The Inca leader, Atahualpa, was ambushed, held for ransom, 'tried' and executed, effectively ending the Inca empire. Quito held out for two years but was eventually razed by Atahualpa's general, Rumiñahui, who preferred destroying the city rather than losing it intact to the invading Spaniards. Quito was refounded in December 1534. Today, only one intact Inca site remains in Ecuador - Ingapirca, to the north of Cuenca.

Although life was abysmal for the indigenous people under Spanish rule, there were no major uprisings by the Ecuadorian Indians. Spain ruled the colony from Lima, Peru, until 1739, when it was transferred to the viceroyalty of Colombia.

As a Creole middle class began to emerge, there were several attempts to liberate Ecuador from Spanish rule. Independence was finally achieved by Simón Bolívar in 1822. Full constitutional sovereignty was gained in 1830. The country's internal history has since been marked by fierce rivalry and occasional open warfare between the church-backed conservatives in Quito and the liberals and socialists of Guayaquil.

Over the last 100 years, assassinations and political instability have increasingly invoked military intervention, and the 20th century has seen more periods of military rule than of civilian. In 1941, neighboring Peru invaded Ecuador and seized much of the country's Amazonian area. The 'new' border between the two countries - although formally agreed upon and ratified by the 1942 Rio de Janeiro treaty - remains a matter of dispute., as a comparison of Ecuadorian and non-Ecuadorian maps will show. Border region skirmishes have occasionally flared up, usually around January, the month when the treaty was signed. The squabbling has died down in recent years, as both countries work to impress potential foreign investors (who tend to be scared off by territorial skirmishes), and a treaty is in the works that should finally bring an end to this dispute.

Despite its history of internal rivalry and border conflicts, life in Ecuador has remained peaceful in recent years. Ecuador is currently one of the safest countries to visit in South America.


Straddling the equator, the Ecuadorian coast rushes up to snow-capped volcanoes then falls away to hot Amazon jungle--all in a country the size of the State of Colorado! It shares a long-contested border with Peru to the south and east, and is bounded by Colombia to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The country can be divided into four regions: the western coastal lowlands, the central Andean highlands, the eastern jungles of the Amazon basin and - some 1000 KM (620 miles) west of the mainland - the Galapagos Islands. Thanks to its agreeable climate and patchwork of habitats (alpine grasslands, coastal swamps, tropical rainforest), Ecuador is one of the most species-rich nations on earth, and ecologists have dubbed Ecuador a megadiversity hotspot.

The Amazon basin, east of the Andes, is an almost impenetrable tangle of rainforest known to Ecuadorians as the Oriente (the East). Although the Amazon itself does not flow through Ecuador, all rivers east of the Andes eventually empty into the mighty river. The Cuyabeno Wildlife Refuge, which we will visit, has been declared one of Earth's ten biological hotspots of biodiversity. Hotspots are the world's richest and most threatened ecosystems and Ecuador claims two!

The Andean highlands - the country's backbone - are composed of two volcanic ranges separated by a central valley. The capital city of Quito is nestled in the Northern end of this valley at 2850 meters above sea level, just 22 km (14 miles) south of the equator. Inhabited for centuries by Andean Indians, roughly half of Ecuador's population lives amidst these rugged mountains.

Religion, Language and Food

The predominant religion is Roman Catholic, but there is a scattering of other Christian faiths. Indigenous Ecuadorians, however, have blended Catholicism and their traditional beliefs. An example is the near synonymous association of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the Virgin Mary.

Spanish is the main language throughout Ecuador, although most highland Indians are bilingual, with Quechua being their preferred language, while Spanish is only learned in school. When bargaining in rural markets, a Quechua word or two will not only endear you to the vendors, but usually get you an extra orange or more juice! Several small lowland groups speak their own languages. English is understood in the best hotels and in airline offices and travel agencies, but it's of little use elsewhere.

Ecuadorian food consists mainly of soup and stews, corn pancakes, rice, eggs and vegetables. Seafood is excellent, even in the highlands. Local specialties include ceviche, seafood prepared in lemon juice; lechón, suckling pig; and cuy, whole roasted guinea pig-however, some delicacies may only be for the most adventurous stomachs!

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