Ecuador is an incredibly beautiful country, with nearly every type of dramatic landscape packed into its small area. There are world-famous beaches on the coast, which is always warm due to Ecuador’s location straddling the equator. The country climbs quickly to the highlands, nestled in the breathtaking peaks of the snow-capped mountain range of the Andes. The Andes drop off suddenly to the Amazon basin, where thick rainforest covers the mighty river. Active volcanoes and clear waterfalls dot the countryside, and Incan ruins lay hidden in remote spots. Ecuador is truly an adventure traveler’s paradise!
Legend of the Incas
The region that is now called Ecuador was inhabited by humans as early as 10,000 B.C., and established hunter-gatherer cultures in the rich highlands and coast of the region. Three distinct groups formed that created some of the oldest-known pottery in the world. These groups established trade with tribes in current-day Brazil and Peru. These civilizations evolved to be highly-skilled navigators and metal-workers, and traded as far away as Mayan civilizations in Mexico. The three most powerful tribes were called the Caras, Quitu, and Canari. When the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui invaded from the South, these tribes fought fiercely to hold him back. But they could not hold out forever against the vast Inca Empire; the tribes soon fell to Huayna Capac, the emperor’s son. Huayna acculturated the tribes to the Incan language of Quechua, which is still widely spoken in the country today.
Huayna Capac built the great city of Tombebamba near present-day Cuenca, a city that rivaled the Inca seat of Cuzco. When he died, he split his empire between his sons, Atahualpa and Huascar, who immediately engaged in a civil war for the entire empire.
Francisco Pizarro landed on the coasts of Ecuador as the conflict reached its unstable finish in 1532. Pizarro had visited the region a few years earlier and heard rumors of rich cities in the interior. Upon his second landing, he intended to conquer those riches for himself. Atahualpa triumphed over his brother and his empire was extremely fragile. In what is both history and an Ecuadorian legend, Pizarro ambushed the ruler and forced him to collect a massive ransom from his people, and proceeded to execute him. The Incas were unable to resist the Spanish invaders without their leader.
Spanish governors ruled Ecuador for three centuries, although only from Lima, Peru, and Colombia. Ecuador won its independence under the historical hero Simon Bolivar, who defeated the Spanish and united Ecuador with Colombia and Venezuela under the name of Gran Colombia. Ecuador seceded from that union eight years later.
After the Incas
The 1800s in Ecuador were no less tumultuous than its ancient history. Several rulers came to power in quick succession, and a territorial dispute with Peru increased instability. In 1941, war broke out between the two countries over control of the Amazon basin region. Peru pitted their army of over 11,000 against Ecuador’s poorly-armed 5,000. The Peruvian army pushed into and occupied the southern regions of Ecuador, and the Peruvian Navy blocked the major port city of Guayaquil. The fighting ceased after only a few weeks under pressure from the U.S. and other Latin American countries. Peru was awarded the disputed territory. But the dispute would not be ended until 1999, two undeclared wars and one peace agreement later.
Politics in Today's Ecuador
Ecuador’s government is characterized by the classic three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary. The president, vice-president, and members of Congress may serve 4-year terms. Unfortunately, a weak executive branch has kept Ecuador’s politics unstable. The country’s indigenous population has emerged as a strong constituency in the past years, and the government has failed to deliver on land reforms, social services, and lowering unemployment. The last three democratically-elected presidents have failed to finish out their terms.
Although Spanish is Ecuador’s official language, Quechua is widely spoken by the indigenous population. Ten other native languages are also spoken throughout the country. This is just one indication of the rich mestizo influence that characterizes Ecuadorian culture.
A traveler to Ecuador may hear beautiful Andean music typical to the region floating through restaurants, on buses, and live, if one is lucky. It involves, drums, flutes, and guitars and has an airy, ethereal quality. The marimba is also prominent in Ecuador; it originates with Afro-Ecuadorians.
Ecuador’s prominent indigenous population has beautiful traditional dress. Specific dress varies from region to region, although there are similarities across the country. Women’s dress typically involves a white shirt and a shawl with a long skirt. Their gorgeous long hair may be adorned with a scarf. Men do not use the traditional dress as often, although they might wear a fedora or poncho. However, dress in the Amazon is much more minimal than that of the colder highlands.
A trip to Ecuador should plan to include one of the incredible markets that take place across the country. The largest is the Otavalo market, although Quito and Guayaqil also have their own impressive offerings. Travelers can find indigenous crafts, artifacts, food, textiles; these markets are famous for their diversity.
A Taste of the Andes
Ecuador’s signature dish (especially for unsuspecting travelers) is cuy, or guinea pig. This tender meat is served roasted. Other staples in the mountainous regions include cereals such as quinoa, potatoes, and rice. A traveler to this area may be served hornado, or roasted pig with potatoes. Corn-based humitas and tamales are also common foods here.
Seafood is prominent along the coastal areas of Ecuador, especially shrimp, prawns, and lobster. Seafood is generally served with a caldo, or soup, and another dish based on plantains or peanuts.
Quito, the beautiful capital city, is quite cosmopolitan and has a range of excellent foods, from international to typical to fusion.
Wildlife Wonders of Ecuador
Ecuador’s various landscapes provide habitat for a wide array of flora and fauna. The high peaks of the Andes are home to spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, deer, and mountain lions. Travelers should occasionally look to the skies to catch a glimpse of the great Andean condor.
Explorers of the Amazon jungle may be lucky enough to see the rare mammals that inhabit this region, including ocelots, sloths, and anteaters. The most common mammal here is the monkey, of which there are several species. Reptiles are much more common sights, as there are several kinds of lizards and snakes, even the occasional tortoise. And yes, the famous anaconda does live here as well, though it is incredibly rare to come across.
Ecuador also has a few cloud forests, which are mountain slopes kept wet by constant mists. Birdwatchers should look for the hundreds of hummingbirds found here, as well as the mountain toucan. Tanagers and the rare Umbrella bird are also found here.
The coast of Ecuador has been largely deforested, although there are a few mangrove forests left. If all else fails, a cruise to Ecuador should attract some excited dolphins to play in its wake.
Weather in Ecuador
Ecuador, true to its name, straddles the equator. This means that there is little change in daylight hours, and little seasonal variation. This also means, then, that it is always a good time visit Ecuador!
The rainy season occurs from January to April, and so beachgoers should consider planning their vacation around those wetter months, although it is hotter in the rainy season. Temperatures stay high year around, from about 80F to 92F.
During the wet season, the highlands do not experience a lot of rain; but the “dry” season sees a fair amount of rain. Although directly on the equator, the highlands are not as hot; for example, Quito rarely heats up above 88F, but because of its elevation, can cool down to about 40F.
The Amazon region is always hot and always humid. The wettest months are June, July, and August. Temperatures average 85-90F, and drop to about 68F at night.
Coast to Andes to Amazon
Ecuador is an incredibly beautiful country, with a surprisingly diverse landscape for its small size. The coast along the Pacific Ocean is long with stretches of white sandy beaches, and the water is warm for swimming year around.
Ecuador is bisected by the dramatic peaks of the Andes, which retain their signature snow caps throughout the year. The mountain range descends into the central highlands. These high areas are dotted with volcanoes, many of them active and giving fantastic shows (few of them dangerous) to the lucky tourist.
The highlands drop off into the Amazon basin, where Ecuador cradles the mighty river. The Amazon is covered in dense rainforest, offering the adventurous traveler to Ecuador the opportunity to experience an incredibly wild place.
Ecuador is peppered with beautiful towns and cities. Quito is the capital city, known as one of the most beautiful capitals in South America. It has retained its colonial feel and is a mosaic of majestic white buildings, set on a hillside in the shadow of Pichincha, an active volcano. Quito is very cosmopolitan, and a perfect starting location for an Ecuadorian adventure.
A Dramatic Environment
Ecuador’s diverse landscape is both a blessing and a curse; its volatility makes it prone to environmental disasters. While these are localized and unlikely to occur on your particular vacation, it is good to keep in mind the unpredictability of Ecuador’s landscape.
Because of the amount of rainfall, Ecuador tends to experience flooding and subsequent landslides. It is very geographically active, with active volcanoes that go through eruptions and the occasional earthquake. Ecuador is a very dramatic country, which is also what makes it great for the adventure traveler.
In the environmental realm, Ecuador is currently experiencing problems with deforestation, both on the coast and in the Amazon basin. A weak government has been unable to regulate illegal logging practices. However, there are several non-profits and international organizations in the country working to preserve existing forests and introduce sustainable practices.