Ecuador’s diverse indigenous population is made up of nearly four million people, roughly 25% of Ecuadorians (another 65% of the population are mestizos, with mixed indigenous and European ancestry). There are more than a dozen distinct groups in Ecuador, speaking some 20 different languages. Historically, Ecuador's native peoples suffered heavy discrimination and abuse from early Europeans, and today's groups face equally daunting challenges – particularly from the loss of lands owing to deforestation.
Ecuador’s indigenous people have suffered from centuries of discrimination and remain at the bottom of the country’s highly stratified social-class structure. It’s a well-known truth that if you’re indigenous in Ecuador, you’re more likely to be poor, have fewer years of education and have less access to basic healthcare. According to a report by the World Bank, poverty among Ecuadorian indigenous people is about 87% and reaches 96% in the rural highlands. To make matters worse, oil drilling, mining and logging has led to the widespread displacement of indigenous groups or to the polluting of their natural environment – the $18 billion lawsuit against Texaco (which is now owned by Chevron) for the heavy petro-contamination of the Amazon is but one high-profile example.
Despite enormous hardships, indigenous people have made some strides on the political front. Through marches and popular uprisings, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has lobbied for greater autonomy and land reform – protesting, in particular, the expropriation of indigenous lands to multinational companies. Since its founding in the 1980s, CONAIE’s political power has grown, and the government has made a few concessions – granting 16,000 sq km of land to indigenous groups in 1992 and giving them greater autonomy and recognition in the new constitution, drafted in 2008.
The country’s largest indigenous ethnic group, the Kichwa number well over two million. They live in both the Sierra and the Amazon, and vary considerably in customs and lifestyles. Those in the mountains subsist on small plots of farmland, raising sheep and cattle, and their fine textiles and weavings are an essential source of income.
One of the best-known groups within the Kichwa community are the otavaleños. Like other indigenous groups, they have a unique dress that sets them apart from other groups. For men, this consists of a blue poncho, a fedora, white calf-length socks, and a shimba (a long braid that hangs down nearly to the waist). Wearing the hair in this fashion probably dates back to pre-Inca times, and is an established and deeply rooted tradition. The women’s dress may be the closest to Inca costume worn anywhere in the Andes. White blouses, blue skirts, shawls and jewelry are all ways of outwardly expressing their ethnicity.
Short in stature (men average 1.5m or about 5ft tall), the Huaoranis are an Amazonian tribe living between the Río Napo and the Río Curaray in the Oriente. They number no more than 4000 and remain one of Ecuador’s most isolated indigenous groups. They have a reputation for being warriors, defending their territory against outsiders – whether rival tribes or oil developers. They have a complex cosmology – making no distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds – and an intimate understanding of the rainforest in cultivating medicine, poisons for defense and hallucinogens for spiritual rites. Some still refer to them as the Aucas, meaning ‘savage’ in Kichwa, which the Huaoranis find extremely offensive.
Until the 1950s the Shuar, from the Amazonian lowlands, were a society of male hunters and female gardeners. To preserve their culture and lands, the Shuar (who today number 40,000) formed the first ethnic federation in Ecuadorian Amazonia in 1964. Traditionally, they were seminomadic, practicing small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture, planting crops (such as yuca and sweet potato) and moving on before the soil was depleted. Like in other Amazonian groups, Shuar shamans administer ayahuasca, a psychoactive infusion, to reach higher planes of consciousness in spiritual practices. They are among the most active groups in the struggle against oil and mineral exploration in the Amazon.
Love & War Among the Shuar
One of the most studied Amazonian groups, the Shuar were once feared as ‘headhunters’ and had a reputation for being fierce warriors – in fact, they were never conquered by the Spanish. Up until the mid-20th century they were famous for the elaborate process of tzantza, shrinking the heads of slain opponents. Shuar believed the muisak (soul) of the victim remained inside the head and that keeping the tzantza would bring the warrior good fortune and please the spirits of his ancestors.
Shuar men take one or two wives, and girls are often married between the ages of 12 and 14. Unlike in some other societies, women are given autonomy in the marriage; those that are dissatisfied with their husbands can leave and return to their families. The men, however, cannot abandon their wives (those that run off will be brought back by the wife’s family!). Outside marriage, some Shuar take lovers, which may or may not be tolerated by the spouse. Older wives sometimes take it upon themselves to teach young unmarried men the arts of lovemaking, and having multiple partners is not necessarily frowned upon. Nevertheless, misunderstandings are not uncommon, and bloody, longstanding family feuds have sometimes resulted from such infidelities.
The Chachi originally lived in Ecuador’s highlands, but fled to the Pacific coast (in present-day Esmeraldas province) in the wake of Inca and Spanish conquests. With a population of around 4000, they live in homes made of palm fronds, travel by canoe through a watery landscape and cultivate cocoa and tropical fruits. They are highly skilled artisans, particularly known for their hammocks.
Straddling the Ecuador-Colombia border in the northeast, the Cofán number about 1200, half of whom live in Ecuador. Like other Amazonian groups they have seen a significant loss and degradation of their environment, largely due to oil drilling. However, in recent years they have waged a successful campaign for land rights, and are presently in control of 4000 sq km of rainforest (a seemingly broad expanse, but only a fraction of the 30,000 sq km originally belonging to the group).
For insights into the customs and cosmology of the Shuar, read Spirit of the Shuar (2001) by John Perkins and Shakaim Chumpi. Through interviews with members of the Amazonian tribe, Perkins explores Shuar warrior culture, healing and sexual practices, spiritual beliefs and challenges in the face of ever-encroaching development.
One of the more unusual Amazonian leaders is the 50-something ‘Gringo Chief’ Randy Borman. Born to American missionaries living in the Amazon, he has become one of the Cofán’s most influential chiefs. He speaks flawless Cofán and has helped the tribe win major land concessions. You can read his blog at www.cofan.org.
Arts & Music
Poncho-wearing, flute-playing Andean groups are a staple in nearly every large city across the globe. The musical and artistic traditions of this culturally rich nation, however, are far more complex. You'll find stunning colonial architecture, powerful artworks by celebrated Ecuadorian painters and rich folkloric song traditions that tap into the nation's African and indigenous roots.
When it comes to colonial architecture, two cities stand high above the rest: Quito and Cuenca. Both have historical centers so stunning they've been declared Unesco World Heritage Sites (Quito in 1978 and Cuenca in 1999). Quito's churches are some of the richest, most spectacular colonial buildings in all of South America. Bearing testament to the fact that Spain was under the rule of the Moors for centuries, many of Quito's churches have striking Moorish (Arabic) influences known as mudéjar.
Many of Quito's churches were built atop sacred indigenous sights, adding yet another layer to the cultural mix. The overall appearance of the city's colonial churches is overpoweringly ornamental and almost cloyingly opulent.
By contrast, the houses of the middle and upper classes during the colonial period were elegant and simple. Typically, these houses had whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs, and often had rooms with verandas surrounding a central courtyard. Many houses had two stories, and the upper floors had ornate wooden balconies with intricately carved balustrades. Cuenca is the true exemplar of these.
Painting & Sculpture
Ecuador's most significant artistic contribution is the Quito School of Art, which reached its zenith between 1600 and 1765. The Quito School died out following independence, largely because the style was associated with the Spanish regime. The 19th century brought the Republican period, during which favorite subjects were heroes of the revolution, florid landscapes and important members of the new republic's high society.
The 20th century saw the rise of the indigenista (indigenous-led) movement, whose unifying theme was the oppression and burdens of Ecuador's indigenous inhabitants. The pioneer of the indigenista movement was Camilo Egas (1899–1962), who, along with painter Eduardo Kingman (1913–98), placed Ecuadorian modern art on the international map. The country's most famous indigenista painter, however, is Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–99), whose evocative and haunting works tackle such themes as torture, poverty and loss. His pieces hang in galleries all over the world, although the best place to see his work is in Quito.
No discussion of Ecuadorian painting is complete without mentioning tigua, an intricate, colorful painting style generally depicting Andean indigenous groups. The art form's major progenitor is the internationally known Alfredo Toaquiza.
Ecuador has several notable literary figures, although none have become household names outside the country. Juan Montalvo (1832–89) was a prolific essayist from Ambato who frequently attacked the dictatorial political figures of his time. His best-known work is the book Siete tratados (Seven Treatises; 1882), which includes a comparison between Simón Bolívar and George Washington. Juan León Mera (1832–94), also from Ambato, is famous for his novel Cumandá (1891), which describes indigenous life in the 19th century.
Perhaps the most notable Ecuadorian writer of the 20th century is quiteño Jorge Icaza (1906–79), who was profoundly influenced by the indigenista movement. His most famous novel, Huasipungo (1934; translated as The Villagers in 1973) is a brutal story about indigenous Ecuadorians, the seizure of their land and the savage massacre of those who protested.
One of the most recognizable tunes of traditional Andean música folklórica (folk music) is Simon and Garfunkel’s version of ‘El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)’. This was already a classic Andean tune (written by Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles in 1913) before the popular duo got their hands on it.
Andean songs like this one typically have a breathy, mournful quality courtesy of the panpipes – which in Ecuador is known as the rondador, a single row of bamboo pipes in a pentatonic (five-note) scale. It’s considered Ecuador’s national instrument and varies from other Andean instruments such as the zampoña (two rows of cane pipes, originating in the highlands area around Lake Titicaca) and the quena and pingullo (large and small bamboo flutes). Other traditional instruments include the charango, a mandolin-like instrument with 10 strings and a sounding box that was originally made with an armadillo shell.
One man you can find practicing this music is Luis Alban, who owns the Caskaffesu hotel in Mindo and sometimes holds jam sessions in the hotel restaurant.
Although most people associate Ecuador with folklórica, the country’s most popular national music is pasillo, which is rooted in the waltz. Pasillo’s origins date back to the 19th century when Ecuador (along with Colombia, Venezuela and Panama) was part of Gran Colombia. These poignant songs with their melancholic melodies often touch on themes of disillusionment, lost love and unquenchable longing for the past. Less commonly, the lyrics celebrate the beauty of the Ecuadorian landscape (or its women), the valor of its men (indeed, pasillo was popular during the Ecuadorian War of Independence) or the charm of its towns and cities.
Pasillo’s most famous voice was that of Julio Jaramillo, known affectionately as ‘JJ’ (pronounced ‘jota jota’ in Spanish). Born in 1935, this handsome singer from Guayaquil popularized the genre throughout Latin America with his lyrical songs. Unfortunately, hard living led to his early death (from cirrhosis of the liver) at the age of 42. At the time of his death, he had become a legend, and some 250,000 mourners came out for his funeral. Jaramillo’s version of ‘Guayaquil de Mis Amores’ is a well-known paean to the city that’s sure to induce nostalgia in any Ecuadorian expat.
Northwest Ecuador, particularly Esmeraldas province, is the heart of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorian population. Here – and in Afro-Colombian communities of neighboring Colombia – you can find musical traditions quite distinct from those in other parts of Ecuador.
The iconic instrument here is the marimba (a percussion instrument laid out like a xylophone but with wooden bars), which produces a range of bright but mellow sounds. It’s accompanied by the conga-drum-like cunuco, the bigger bomba (large sheepskin drum) and the maraca-like guasá. Big West African–style beats back the simple choral arrangements; traditional dances like the stylized bambuco sometimes accompany the music.
In addition to the north coast, in the Chota Valley there’s also an Afro-Ecuadorian community, the only population of its kind found anywhere in the highlands. The music there blends more indigenous elements (including pan flutes) to African rhythms and is called bomba, named after the large drum that lays down the heavy beats.
Among the more popular Afro-Ecuadorian music and dance groups is Azúcar, which is named in honor of the group’s early ancestors, who labored on sugarcane plantations. The outstanding Esmeraldas-based Grupo Bambuco add a horn section to the driving, highly danceable beats.
Musical hybrids have flourished in Ecuador over the last 200 years, creating new genres from traditional Spanish styles shaped by indigenous influences.
The sanjuanito (which means ‘little St John’) is a joyful dance and music style (though it too has melancholic undertones) with traditional Andean rhythms and instrumentation. Its origin dates back to religious celebrations held on June 24 – an important day to both Catholics (St John’s Day) and the indigenous (Inti Raymi or the Inca Festival of the Sun).
Born in the early 20th century, the pasacalle is a distant relative of the Spanish pasodoble, the march-like music typically played at bullfights. The Ecuadorian variant is equally fast-paced with dramatic elements and a clean 2/4 beat.
If there’s one inescapable music in this Andean country, it’s cumbia, whose rhythm resembles that of a trotting three-legged horse. Originally from Colombia, Ecuadorian cumbia has a rawer (almost amateur), melancholic sound, and is dominated by the electronic keyboard. Bus drivers love the stuff, perhaps because it so strangely complements those back-road journeys through the Andes (and hopefully it keeps them awake at the wheel).
A nightclub favorite is Caribbean-born reggaetón (a blend of Puerto Rican bomba, dancehall and hip-hop) with its grinding melodies and racy lyrics. Salsa, merengue and rock en español (Latin rock) also get plenty of airtime on radio stations and in nightclubs around the country.
Sidebar: Top Songs
- ‘A Mi Lindo Ecuador’ – Pueblo Nuevo
- ‘Algo Así’ – Fausto Miño
- ‘Andarele’ – Grupo Bambuco
- ‘Ayayay!’ – Tomback
- ‘Caderona’ – Papá Rincón
- ‘Codominio de Cartón’ – Rocola Bacalao
- ‘De Mis Manos’ – Manolo Criollo
- ‘Homenaje a Mis Viejos’ – Raíces Negras
- 'Entiendo Lo Que Hice Para Ti' – Fausto Miño
Sidebar: More Top Songs
- ‘Inti Raymi’ – Faccha Huayras
- ‘Light It Up’ – Esto Es Eso
- ‘Luz de Mi Vida’ – Jayac
- ‘Ñuca Llacta’ – Ñanda Mañanchi
- ‘Soy El Hombre’ – Azúcar
- ‘Super Girla’ – Sudakaya
- ‘Te Odio y Te Quiero’ – Julio Jaramillo
The biopic Julio Jaramillo: Ruisenor de America (1996) does an excellent job of capturing the brilliance and decadence of the Latin American music legend. Throughout a 20-plus-year career, he recorded over 4000 songs, living an alcohol-fueled bohemian life and leaving behind a string of lovers (and dozens of illegitimate children).
A good introduction to Ecuadorian literature is Diez cuentistas ecuatorianos (1990), an anthology of short stories by 10 Ecuadorian writers born in the 1940s. The stories are written in Spanish with English translations.
Children may enjoy Three Magical Legends from Ecuador by Edgar Allen Garcia, son-in-law of the Hacienda Cusín (it's in English and Spanish, and you can buy it there). These ghost stories interweave Ecuadorian history and are richly illustrated.
The Natural World
Despite its diminutive size, Ecuador has some of the world’s most varied geography. Crammed into a nation roughly the size of the UK, you'll find Andean peaks, Amazonian rainforest and misty cloud forests – not to mention those spectacular volcanic islands 1000km offshore. Among such diverse landscapes, Ecuador harbors an extraordinary variety of wildlife. From the tiny American pygmy kingfisher to the regal jaguar, Ecuador is home to a jaw-dropping menagerie of creatures great and small.
Ecuador straddles the equator on the Pacific coast of South America, and is bordered by Colombia to the north and Peru to the south and east. The country can be divided into three regions: the Andes form the backbone of Ecuador; the coastal lowlands lie west of the mountains; and the Oriente, to the east, comprises the jungles of the upper Amazon Basin.
In only 200km as the condor flies, you can climb from the coast to snowcaps and then descend to the jungle on the country’s eastern side. The Galápagos Islands lie on the equator, 1000km west of Ecuador’s coast, and constitute one of the country’s 21 provinces.
The Andes (known in Ecuador as the highlands) stretch high above the landscape, with Volcán Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak, topping out at 6310m. The central highlands contain two parallel volcanic mountain ranges, each about 400km long. The valley nestled between them was appropriately dubbed ‘the Avenue of the Volcanoes’ by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who visited the country in 1802. Quito lies within this valley and, at 2850m, is the world’s second-highest national capital, second only to La Paz in Bolivia. The central highlands are also home to countless towns and tiny villages well known for their indigenous markets and fiestas. This region has the highest population density in the country.
The western coastal lowlands were once heavily forested, but encroaching agriculture has meant the replacement of forest with fruit plantations and the clear-cutting of mangroves for shrimp farming. The beaches are blessed with warm water year-round and provide decent surfing, but are not as pretty as the beaches of the Caribbean.
The eastern lowlands of the Oriente still retain much of their virgin rainforest, but colonization and oil drilling have damaged this delicate habitat. The population of the Oriente has more than tripled since the late 1970s.
Unseen Bounty of the Rainforest
Home to poisonous snakes, toxic plants and flesh-eating fish (not to mention predatorial caiman and jaguars), the Amazon rainforest may not seem like the world’s most inviting habitat. But for the indigenous people who have always lived there, the rainforest has everything needed for survival; it functions as their supermarket, pharmacy, hardware store and cathedral.
For those of us that couldn’t imagine living without Western medicine, it’s perhaps most fascinating to read about life in the Oriente, where village shamans still serve as healers, harnessing the powerful extractions of the rainforest for all manner of ailments. There are remedies for headaches, fevers, insect bites, constipation, muscular aches, nervous disorders, diarrhea, asthma, epilepsy, ulcers and intestinal parasites – and plants are even used as contraceptives. In addition to medicinal use, rainforest plants and animals serve many other purposes. The tiny but extremely lethal poison-dart frogs – one of which has enough toxicity to kill about a dozen humans – play a key role in hunting; the psychotropic plant ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogen used in spiritual ceremonies.
Ecologists have labeled Ecuador one of the world’s ‘megadiversity hotspots.’ The tiny nation is one of the most species-rich countries on the planet. Ecuador’s astounding biodiversity is due to the great number of habitats within its borders, with dramatically different fauna in the Andes, the tropical rainforests, the coastal regions and the numerous transitional zones. The result is a wealth of habitats, ecosystems and wildlife.
Bird-watchers from all over the world flock to Ecuador for one simple reason: the country is home to more than 1600 bird species – twice the number found in the continents of Europe and North America combined (and fourth, in number, in the world, behind Brazil, Colombia, and Peru). It’s impossible to give a precise number because formerly unobserved species are often reported, and very occasionally a new species is discovered – an incredibly rare event in the world of birds.
Bird-watching is outstanding year-round and every part of the country offers unique habitats. Mindo remains a favorite and often records the most species during Audubon's annual 'Christmas Count.' A local favorite there is the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, which makes both stunning visual and vocal displays.
For many visitors, the diminutive hummingbirds found throughout Ecuador are the most delightful birds to observe. Around 130 species have been recorded in Ecuador, and their exquisite beauty is matched by extravagant names such as green-tailed goldenthroat, spangled coquette, fawn-breasted brilliant and amethyst-throated sunangel.
Fine & Feathered: Ecuador’s Greatest Hits
Ecuador’s unique and diverse habitats are home to a wondrous variety of bird species both great and small. A few perennial favorites include the following:
- Andean Condor Ecuador’s emblematic bird with its 3m wingspan is one of the largest flying birds in the world. In 1880 the British mountaineer Edward Whymper noted that he commonly saw a dozen condors on the wing at the same time. Today there are only a few hundred pairs left in the Ecuadorian highlands, so sighting one is a thrilling experience.
- Scarlet Macaws These brilliantly colored birds, with blue, red and yellow feathers, are a magnificent sight and one of more than 40 parrot species found in Ecuador. They often travel in pairs and have lifespans of 40-plus years.
- Harpy Eagle One of the world’s largest birds of prey, with a wingspan of up to 2m and weighing up to 10kg, this apex predator has powerful claws capable of carrying off coatis, sloths, monkeys and other tree-dwelling mammals.
- Plate-Billed Mountain Toucans Among the best-known Latin American birds, toucans have huge (but mostly hollow) beaks perfectly suited for nibbling ripe fruit off the ends of branches. This particular species, with its black and ivory bill, is found on the west Andean slopes and makes quite a racket with loud vocalizations heard up to 1km away.
- American Pygmy Kingfisher Weighing just 18 grams and topping out around 12cm, this diminutive bird has a classic kingfisher appearance (long bill and short tail), but is often mistaken for a hummingbird as it flits past.
- Andean Cock-of-the-Rock A must-see on many birders' life lists, this red-headed, parrot-sized bird is a visual and vocal star, with more than 20 known songs (most quite loud) and striking plumage. Males gather in 'leks' of 10 to 20 individuals in order to wow potential mates – good guides will know where to find them.
Some 300 species of mammals have been recorded in Ecuador. These range from monkeys in the Amazonian lowlands to the rare Andean spectacled bear in the highlands.
For many, the most amusing mammals to spy upon are monkeys. Ecuadorian species include howler monkeys, spider monkeys, woolly monkeys, titi monkeys, capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, tamarins and marmosets. The best places to see them in their natural habitat include Reserva Producción Faunística Cuyabeno, Parque Nacional Yasuní in the Amazonian lowlands, and the rarely visited lowlands sector of Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas, near the coast. A group of marvelously mischievous capuchin monkeys has taken over the central plaza in the Oriente town of Misahuallí, where you’re guaranteed an up-close (and sometimes too personal) experience. In the Oriente you may hear howler monkeys well before you see them; the males’ eerie roars carry great distances and can sound like anything from a baby crying to wind moaning through the trees.
Other tropical specialties include two species of sloth: the diurnal three-toed sloth and the nocturnal two-toed sloth. It’s very possible to spot the former while hiking in the Amazon. They are usually found hanging motionless from tree limbs or progressing at a painfully slow speed along a branch toward a particularly succulent bunch of leaves, which are their primary food source.
There are far fewer species of mammals in the highlands than in the lowlands, but they include commonly seen deer and rabbits and the more rarely sighted Andean fox. One of the icons of the Andes is the llama, which is domesticated and used primarily as a pack animal. Its wild relative, the lovely vicuña, has been reintroduced to the Chimborazo area – you’re almost guaranteed to see them as you drive, bus or walk through the park.
Other possible mammal sightings include anteaters, armadillos, agoutis (large rodents), capybaras (even larger rodents, some weighing up to 65kg), peccaries (wild pigs) and otters. River dolphins are occasionally sighted in Amazonian tributaries.
Other exotic mammals, such as ocelots, jaguars, tapirs, pumas and the Andean spectacled bear, are very rarely seen. The first recorded olinguito, a racoon-like mammal new to scientific observers, was recorded at Bellavista Lodge, between Quito and Mindo, in 2013. It was the first new mammal 'discovered' in 35 years.
Amphibians & Reptiles
The majority of Ecuador’s approximately 460 species of amphibians are frogs. There are tree frogs that spend their entire lives in trees and lay their eggs in water trapped inside bromeliads (a type of epiphytic plant). The ominously named poison-dart frog is among the most brightly colored species of frogs anywhere. Its colors run the spectrum from bright red-orange with jet-black spots to neon green with black wavy lines. Some poison-dart frogs have skin glands exuding toxins that can cause paralysis and death in animals and humans.
Two new frog species in the past decade have made a case for further investigation into the Intag Valley: the Prince Charles Stream Tree Frog and the Longnose Harlequin Frog, a beauty in yellow-and-black. Meanwhile, Reserva Jama-Coaque, near Canoa, has reported more than 40 new frog species since 2009. There's much to be discovered yet, apparently.
Of Ecuador’s reptiles, four really make an impression on visitors. Three of them – the land tortoise, the land iguana and the marine iguana – live in the Galápagos and are easy to see. The fourth is the caiman, which inhabits lagoons in the Oriente. With a little patience and a good canoe guide, you’ll spot these spooky creatures as well.
Snakes, which are much talked about but seldom seen, make up a large portion of Ecuador’s reptiles. They usually slither away into the undergrowth at the sound of approaching humans, so only a few fortunate visitors get to see them. Perhaps Ecuador’s most feared snake is the fer-de-lance, which is extremely poisonous. Visitors are rarely bitten, but it is wise to take precautions. If you do see a snake, keep a respectful distance and avoid provoking it.
Some 25,000 species of vascular plants reside in Ecuador’s diverse habitats (compared to 17,000 species in North America), and new species are being discovered every year. Cloud forests, rainforests, páramo (high-altitude Andean grasslands) and mangrove swamps all set the stage for discovering Ecuador’s photogenic natural wonders.
The Oriente is Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon, the greatest rainforest habitat in the world. It is home to an astounding variety of plants and animals, located in much denser concentrations than in temperate forests.
Lianas (thick dangling vines) hang from high up in the canopy, and the massive roots of strangler figs engulf other trees, slowly choking them of light and life. Spread across the forest floor are the buttressed roots of tropical hardwoods, which are sometimes so massive you can just about disappear inside their weblike supports. Equally impressive are the forest’s giant leaves, which are thick and waxy and have pointed ‘drip tips,’ which facilitate water runoff during downpours.
Much of the rainforest’s plant and animal life is up in the canopy rather than on the forest floor, which can appear surprisingly empty to the first-time visitor. If you’re staying in a jungle lodge, find out if it has a canopy tower; climbing above the treetops provides spectacular views.
Tropical Cloud Forests
One of Ecuador’s most enchanting habitats is the tropical cloud forest (bosque nebludo). These moist environments are found at higher elevations and earn their name from the clouds they trap (and help create), which drench the forest in a fine mist. This continual moisture allows particularly delicate forms of plant life to survive. Dense, small-leaved canopies and moss-covered branches set the scene for a host of plant life within, including orchids, ferns and bromeliads. The dense vegetation at all levels of this forest gives it a mysterious and delicate fairy-tale appearance. Some people find it even more beautiful than the rainforest, since many of the plants grow closer to the forest floor. This creates a far more luxuriant environment where the diverse fauna thrives – and remains easier to spot.
Above the cloud forests lie the Andes’ high-altitude grasslands and scrublands, known as the páramo. The páramo is characterized by a harsh climate, high levels of ultraviolet light and wet, peaty soils. It is an extremely specialized habitat unique to the neotropics (tropical America) and is found only in the area between the highlands of Costa Rica and northern Peru.
The páramo is dominated by cushion plants, hard grasses and small herbaceous plants that have adapted well to the harsh highland environment. Most plants up here are small and compact and grow close to the ground. An exception is the giant Espeletia, one of the páramo’s strangest sights. These bizarre-looking plants stand as high as a person, and have earned the local nickname frailejones (gray friars). They are an unmistakable feature of the northern Ecuadorian páramo, particularly in the El Ángel region, high above Ibarra.
The páramo is also characterized by dense thickets of small trees, often of the Polylepis species that, along with Himalayan pines, are the highest-growing trees in the world. They were once extensive, but fire and grazing have pushed them back into small pockets.
Mangroves are trees that have evolved with the remarkable ability to grow in salt water. The red mangrove is the most common in Ecuador, and like other mangroves it has a broadly spreading system of intertwining stilt roots to support the tree in the unstable soils of the shoreline. These roots trap sediments and build up rich organic soil, which creates a protected habitat for many plants and fish, as well as mollusks, crustaceans and other invertebrates. The branches provide nesting areas for seabirds, such as pelicans and frigate birds. Extensive mangrove areas on Ecuador’s coastline have been cleared for shrimp farms, and most are now found in the far northern and southern coastal regions. The tallest mangroves in the world are inside the Reserva Ecológica de Manglares Cayapas Mataje.
Tropical Dry Forests
This fascinating habitat is fast disappearing and is found primarily in the hot coastal areas near Parque Nacional Machalilla and in southwest Loja Province en route to Macará. Its definitive plant species is the majestic bottle-trunk ceiba (also known as kapok), a glorious tree with a massively bulging trunk and seasonal white flowers that dangle like lightbulbs from the bare branches.
National Parks & Reserves
Ecuador has more than 30 government-protected parks and reserves (of which nine carry the title of ‘national park’) as well as numerous privately administered nature reserves. A total of 18% of the country lies within protected areas. Yet despite their protected status, many of these areas continue to be susceptible to oil drilling, logging, mining, ranching and colonization.
Many parks are inhabited by indigenous groups, whose connection to the area long precedes modern park or reserve status. In the case of the Oriente parks, the indigenous people maintain traditional hunting rights, which also affect the ecology. The question of how to protect the national parks from damage by heavy industry (oil, timber and mining) while recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples – all in the context of keeping the nation financially solvent – remains a hot-button topic in Ecuador.
páramo, lakes, small Polylepis, forests
hiking, fishing, bird-watching
Best Time to Visit
páramo, lakes, cloud forest, hot springs, Andean condors, tapirs, indigenous communities
hiking, hot springs, camping
Best Time to Visit
páramo, Volcán Cotopaxi, Andean condors, deer, rabbits
Best Time to Visit
volcanically formed islands, seabirds, iguanas, turtles, rich underwater life
wildlife-watching, snorkeling, diving
Best Time to Visit
páramo, cloud forest, lowland forest, deer, tapirs, jaguars, spectacled bears
Best Time to Visit
year-round (access difficult)
coastal dry forest, beaches, islands, whales, seabirds, monkeys, reptiles
Best Time to Visit
páramo, cloud forest, tropical humid forest, spectacled bears, tapirs, deer, birds
Best Time to Visit
Volcán Sumaco, subtropical forest, cloud forest
Best Time to Visit
year-round (access difficult)
volcanoes, páramo, cloud forest, lowland forest, spectacled bears, tapirs, pumas, ocelots
Best Time to Visit
evergreen forest, high plains, cloud forest, lakes, spectacled bears, tapirs
Best Time to Visit
rainforest, rivers, lagoons, monkeys, birds, sloths, jaguars, pumas, tapirs
Best Time to Visit
According to UN data, Ecuador has the highest deforestation rate in South America. The country also has a very poor environmental record. In the highlands, almost all of the natural forest cover has disappeared and only a few pockets remain, mainly in private nature reserves. Along the coast, once-plentiful mangrove forests have all but vanished, too. These forests harbor a great diversity of marine and shore life, but they have been removed to make way for artificial ponds in which shrimp are grown for export.
About 95% of the forests of the western slopes and lowlands have become agricultural land, mostly banana plantations. These forests were host to more species than almost anywhere on the planet, many of them endemic. Scientists suggest that countless species have likely become extinct even before they were identified, and in recent years a small preservation movement has taken root.
Although much of the rainforest in the Ecuadorian Amazon still stands, it is seriously threatened by fragmentation. The main threats to the rainforest are logging, cattle ranching and oil extraction. The discovery of oil has brought with it roads and new settlements, and rainforest clearing has increased exponentially.
Sadly, in 2016 drilling began in one of Ecuador's most pristine areas, the Yasuní reserve. Vast oil fields lie beneath one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, full of rare animal species, isolated tribes and an enormous variety of plant life (with more hardwoods in one hectare than found in the entire North American continent, for instance). Environmentalists worry about the very real possibility of devastating oil spills.
Another major environmental threat is mining, which has the potential to wreak as much havoc on the southern Amazon as oil has on the north. Among the most serious concerns is contamination of groundwater and nearby rivers with chemicals used for processing minerals and ore. Reports from the sensitive and historically volatile Intag Valley, which has successfully resisted mining twice before, are that 80% of the region's land has been 'concessioned' to mining companies.
Clearly, these issues are tightly linked with Ecuador’s economy. Oil, minerals, bananas and shrimp are some of the nation’s top exports. Industry advocates claim the cost of abandoning these revenue sources is too high for a small, developing country to shoulder. Environmentalists, on the other hand, claim the government has given free rein to big industry, which has resulted in, at times, catastrophic damage to the local ecology. An infamous 18-year-long environmental class-action lawsuit was almost decided in 2011, when Chevron (which now owns Texaco) was ordered to pay $18 billion in damages for dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste in the Amazon and abandoning 900 waste pits.
However, Chevron considered the ruling illegitimate and won appeals in US District Court in both 2014 and 2016, convincing the judges that the lawyers for the community committed conspiratorial acts such as money laundering and wire fraud offenses. The US Supreme Court ultimately had the last word in 2017, ruling in favor of Chevron.
The rainforest's indigenous inhabitants – who depend on the rivers for drinking water and food – are also dramatically affected. Oil residues, oil treatment chemicals, erosion and fertilizers all contaminate the rivers, killing fish and rendering formerly potable water undrinkable. Finding a balance between development and conservation remains one of the hot political topics of the day.
The Doldrums was the name sailors gave to the windless belt around the equator. It is caused by intense heating along the equator, causing air to rise rather than blow, spelling disaster for sailing ships. The word later entered common usage to mean a period of boredom, inactivity or despondency.
In two excellent (but cumbersome) volumes, The Birds of Ecuador, by Robert Ridgely and Paul Greenfield, is the most authoritative bird-watching tome available. A more practical field guide is the (much smaller) Fieldbook of the Birds of Ecuador, by Miles McMullan and Lelis Navarrete.
Hummingbirds beat their wings up to 80 times per second in a figure-eight pattern that allows them to hover in place or even to fly backward.
No one knows for sure why the sloth engages in its fastidious toilet habits: climbing down its tree once a week, digging a hole into which it will defecate and then covering it afterwards. This exposes the sloth to predators, though the tree surely appreciates the nutrient-rich deposit!
The largest ant in the South American rainforest is the Conga or ‘bullet’ ant, so nicknamed because its extremely painful sting is likened to being shot. The paralyzing neurotoxic venom produces severe pain that can last up to 24 hours.
Caterpillars are masters of disguise, some mimicking twigs, others the head of a viper, even a pile of bird droppings – all in the name of defense.
Regardless of your scientific background (or lack of it), the entertaining and highly readable classic Tropical Nature, by Adrian Forsyth and Kenneth Miyata, is an excellent read before or during any trip to the rainforest.
For a deeper understanding of the plants, animals and unique ecosystems of South America, pick up John Kricher’s The New Neotropical Companion (2017). Illustrations and color photographs supplement the detailed overview covering ecology, evolutionary theory, ornithology, pharmacology and conservation. A featured photographer is none other than Ecuadorian bird expert Edison Buenano.
Ecuadorian cuisine benefits from the country's rich geographic diversity, with tropical fruits, fresh seafood and classic recipes from the campo (countryside) all contributing to the bounty of the Andean table. Many dishes have evolved over the years, blending Spanish and indigenous influences. And while it's little known outside the country's borders, Ecuadorian cooking offers some outstanding opportunities for food-minded adventures, with wildly different recipes and techniques varying from region to region.
It's impossible to consider food from the highlands without discussing the once highly revered crop, maíz (corn). In its numerous varieties, corn has been the staple of the Andean diet for a millennium, and today it forms the basis of countless highland specialties. Kernels are toasted into tostada (toasted corn), popped into cangil (popcorn), boiled and treated to make mote (hominy) and milled into cornmeal. The latter is flavored or filled and wrapped in corn husks or dark green achira leaves and steamed. The results are some of the tastiest treats in the highlands, including tamales (similar to Mexican tamales), humitas (similar to tamales) and quimbolitos (sweeter, more cakelike corn dumplings). In places like Santo Domingo de los Colorados, you can buy some freshly roasted corn on nearly any street corner.
Potatoes, of course, originated in the Andes, and are another important highland staple. Besides a vast array of tiny colorful potatoes, you'll find creations such as llapingachos, fried potato-and-cheese pancakes that are often served as a side dish with fried eggs. Quinoa is an extremely protein-rich grain that forms a staple of the highland indigenous diet and has made its way into contemporary dishes throughout Ecuador.
One of the highlands' most famous dishes is cuy (roasted guinea pig). Cuy is an indigenous specialty that dates back to Inca times and is supposedly high in protein and low in cholesterol. They're usually roasted whole on spits, and the sight of the little paws and teeth sticking out can be a bit unnerving, but for meat eaters it's well worth sampling. Cuenca and Loja are both good places to try it.
Another eye-catching specialty is whole roasted pig. Known as hornado (literally, 'roasted'), this is one of the highland's most popular dishes. In the markets, the juicy meat is pulled right off the golden-brown carcass when you order it. Hornado is almost as popular as fritada, fried chunks of pork that are almost invariably served with mote. Latacunga has a famous take on this dish known as the chugchucara, which makes for a great (if not terribly healthy) weekend feast.
As throughout Ecuador, soups are an important part of the highland diet and come in countless varieties, including caldos (brothy soups), sopas (thicker broth-based soups), locros (creamier and generally heartier soups), sancochos (stewlike soups) and secos (stews that are usually served over rice). Seco de chivo (goat stew) is an Ecuadorian classic that's popular across the country. If you're not keen on goat, look for seco de pollo, the same dish made with chicken. For a belly-warming treat on a misty highland day, try locro de papas, a smooth potato soup served with avocado and cheese.
The coast is where Ecuadorian food really shines. The entire coast is blessed with culinary riches, and it's easy to eat delicious, healthy food there. The cooking of the Manabí province in particular rates among the country's best, and it is a big reason so many Ecuadorian expats long for home.
The staple of coastal cuisine, of course, is seafood, with the great fruits of the sea arriving fresh from the fishing boat at ports across the country. The most widely found seafood dish is corvina, which literally means 'sea bass', but is usually just whatever white fish happens to be available that day. When it's really corvina, it's worth seeking out.
Ceviche is superb in Ecuador. This delicious dish consists of uncooked seafood marinated in lemon juice and seasoned with thinly sliced onion and herbs. It's served cold and, on a hot afternoon, goes down divinely with popcorn and a cold beer. Ceviche is prepared with pescado (fish), camarones (shrimp), calamares (squid), concha (conch), cangrejo (crab) or some combination (mixto). Only shrimp is cooked before being marinated.
Esmeraldas province, which has a large Afro-Ecuadorian population, is home to some delicious African-influenced specialties including the sublime encocado, shrimp or fish cooked in a rich, spiced coconut sauce. Guayas province, and especially the town of Playas, is famous for its crab, which is cooked whole and served in piles as big as your appetite, along with a wooden hammer for cracking open the shells. It's one of the most pleasurable (and messy!) culinary experiences in the country.
Plantains and bananas play a huge role in coastal cooking. One tasty and intriguing dish is sopa de bolas de verde, a thick peanut-based soup with seasoned, mashed-plantain balls floating in it. And as you're busing along the northern coast, kids often board the bus selling corviche (a delicious plantain dumpling stuffed with seafood or shrimp) from big baskets dangling from their arms.
Seafood soups are often outstanding. One of the most popular (and an extremely cheap way to fill the belly) is encebollado, a brothy fish and onion soup poured over yuca and served with chifles (fried banana chips) and popcorn. It's usually eaten in the morning or for an early lunch. Another fabulous soup is sopa marinera, a fine broth – which can range from clear to thick and peanuty – loaded with fish, shellfish, shrimp and sometimes crab.
Bananas play a vital role in Ecuador. They keep the economy humming along (Ecuador exports five million tons a year, making it the world's largest banana exporter), and provide the basis for countless recipes. Bananas are even a part of pop culture. In the coastal city of Machala, the biggest annual event is the Feira Mundial del Banana (World Banana Festival), which culminates in one lucky girl being crowned reina del banano (banana queen).
You'll come across bananas and plantains in many forms and shapes while traveling here, so keep an eye out for these popular dishes:
- Chifles Dried, salted plantain chips; a great snack or accompaniment to soups and ceviches.
- Empanadas de verde Pasties made from green plantain dough and often stuffed with cheese.
- Majado de verde Mashed plantains, peppers and cheese, often topped with a fried egg. Popular at breakfast.
- Patacones Thickly sliced, smashed green plantains fried into chewy fritters.
- Bolones de verde Mashed and fried plantain balls often stuffed with cheese or meat.
- Tigrillo A filling plantain mash served with eggs and cheese and often sausage or beef.
For mouth-watering Ecuadorian recipes and background on culinary traditions, check out the beautifully photographed site www.laylita.com, created by Vilcabamba native Layla Pujol. She lives in the Pacific Northwest of the US, but keeps Ecuador close to her heart (and stove).
An old Ecuadorian adage affirms that 'Amor sin besos es como chocolate sin queso' (love without kisses is like chocolate without cheese). Based on the old Ecuadorian snack favorite.
During the week leading up to Good Friday, Ecuadorians feast on a delicious and hearty soup called fanesca. The best fanesca is made with salt cod and at least a dozen types of grains and is quite labor intensive. Seek it out, if you're around then!