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.
Culture Shaped by Geography
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.
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.
Religion in Ecuador
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.
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.
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.
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 Benigno 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.
Machismo & Racism
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.
Likewise, racism is prevalent among many Ecuadorians with the African and indigenous populations feeling the brunt of centuries of rule by the descendants of Europeans.
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.
Food & Cuisine of Ecuador
With three different regions in the mainland – coast, highlands, and rainforest – the typical cuisine varies depending on where you are. 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!
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.
Read more about Ecuadorian food and cuisine here.
A Brief History of Ecuador
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.
Read more about Ecuador's history