Ecuador Ecuador is a developing country. Travelers to the capital city of Quito may require some time to adjust to the altitude (close to 10,000 feet), which can adversely affect blood pressure, digestion and energy level. Tourist facilities are adequate, but vary in quality. Introduction Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the sensations of delight which the mind experiences.— Charles Darwin If an argumentative group of travelers sat down to design a shared destination, they would be hard put to come up with a place that would best Ecuador. Packed like a knee-cap between Peru and Colombia, Ecuador contains within its borders an improbable variety of landscape and culture.
For the mountaineer, it is bisected by an epic stretch of the northern Andes. For the jungle explorer, there is a biological mother lode within the Amazonian Oriente. The sea-minded are rewarded with miles of Pacific coastline, to say nothing of the living wonders of the Galapagos Islands. Not only are these regions highly defined, but excluding Galapagos they are also wonderfully contiguous. The entire country is about the size of Washington state, and it is home to some of the world’s most extraordinary national parks. In a matter of two hundred miles, the traveler can penetrate all of the mainland’s defining regions–the coastal lowlands in the West, the volcanic central highlands, and the rainforests of the East, or Oriente.
Ecuador’s climate is equally generous to the traveler. Embracing the Pacific, Ecuador rests squarely on the equator (hence its name). Here, seasons are defined more by rainfall than temperature. A warm rainy season lasts from January to April, and May through December is characterized by a cooler, drier period that is ideally timed for a summer trip. History & Culture Ecuador’s culture and history mirrors the diversity of its landscape.
Like much of South America, Ecuadorian culture blends the influences of Spanish colonialism with the resilient traditions of pre-Columbian peoples. Archaeologists trace the first inhabitants as far back as 10,000 BC, when hunters and gatherers established settlements on the southern coast and in the central highlands. By 3,200 BC three distinct agricultural-based civilizations had emerged, producing some of the hemisphere’s oldest known pottery. They developed trade routes with nearby Peru, Brazil, and Amazonian tribes. Culture continued to thrive and diversify, and by 500 BC large cities had been established along the coast. Their inhabitants had sophisticated metalworking and navigational skills and they traded with Mexico’s Maya. In 1460 AD, when the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui invaded from the south, three major tribes in Ecuador were powerful enough to give him a fight: the Canari, the Quitu, and the Caras.
The Inca were a dynamic, rapidly advancing society. They originated in a pocket of Peru, but established a vast empire within a century. It dominated Peru and extended as far as Bolivia and central Chile. The Inca constructed massive, monumental cities. To communicate across their empire they laid wide, stone-paved highways thousands of kilometers long and sent chains of messengers along them. These mailmen passed each other records of the empire’s status, which were coded in system of knots along a rope.
A winded runner could even rest in the shade of trees planted along both sides of the road. Remarkably, the Canari, Quitu, and Caras were able to hold back Tupac-Yupanqui, though they proved less successful against his son, Huayna Capac. After conquering Ecuador, Huayna Capac indoctrinated the tribes to Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still widely spoken in Ecuador. In celebration of his victory, Huayna Capac ordered a great city to be built at Tomebamba, near Cuenca. Its size and influence rivaled the capital of Cuzco in Peru–a rivalry that would mature with posterity. When he died in 1526, Huayna Capac divided the empire between his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar.
Atahualpa ruled the northern reaches from Tombebamba, while Huascar held court over the south from Cuzco. The split inheritance was an unconventional and fateful move, as the first Spaniards arrived in the same year. On the eve of Pizarro’s expedition into the empire, the brothers entered into a civil war for complete control. Francisco Pizarro landed in Ecuador in 1532, accompanied by 180 fully armed men and an equally strong lust for gold. Several years earlier, Pizarro had made a peaceful visit to the coast, where he heard rumors of inland cities of incredible wealth. This time, he intended to conquer the Incas just as Hernando Cortez had crushed Mexico’s Aztecs–and he couldn’t have picked a better time.
Atahualpa had only recently won the war against his brother when Pizarro arrived, and the empire was still unstable. Pizarro ambushed the ruler, forced him to collect an enormous ransom, and then executed him. Although the Incas mounted considerable resistance to Pizarro, they were soon broken. Spanish governors ruled Ecuador for nearly 300 years, first from Lima, Peru, then later from the viceroyalty of Colombia. The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism, colonial architecture, and today’s national language. Independence was won in 1822, when the famed South American liberator Simon Bolivar defeated a Spanish army at the Battle of Pichincha. Bolivar united Ecuador with Colombia and Venezuela, forming the state of Gran Colombia.
His plan was to eventually unite all of South America as a constitutional republic, and one can only wonder what such a nation would have been like if his dream had been realized. After eight years, however, local interests sparked Ecuador to secede from the union. Colombia and Venezuela soon split. Ecuador’s modern history has had its struggles. A long-standing, internal dispute between the conservative city of Quito and the liberal Guayaquil has at times boiled over into violence.
Near the turn of the century, leaders on both sides were assassinated, and military dictators have ruled the country for most of its recent history. Ecuador returned to democracy in 1979, however, and free elections have continued since. A border dispute with Peru exists to this day, and some skirmishes recently flared in the Amazon, though fighting has subsided for the time being. Exploration Geographically, Ecuador can be divided into three primary regions: the Coastal Lowlands, the Central Highlands, and the Eastern Rainforest Basin. The Coastal Lowlands The inhabitants of the coastal lowlands, especially those of Guayaquil, have long considered themselves a breed apart.
Though travelers are greeted warmly, the coastal regions were so resistant to the Spanish that African slaves had to be brought in to provide a labor base to work the rich farmland. Tied to this independent sentiment is a land of roaming beaches, luxuriant plains, and dense mangrove forests. Some of the world’s best preserved mangrove forests can be found along the northern coast. A ride on a pongu boat through the dark, hidden world of the mangrove tree enlightens the visitor to one of the most ecologically important environments in Ecuador. More than beautifully intricate, the meshy roots of the mangrove offer protection to the spawn of oceanic fish, which come to the forests to breed.
In the branches above, colorful toucans and a host of other birds provide dizzying acoustics. Guayaquil Located at the mouth of the Guayas River, this coastal city has always been the largest and most liberal-minded in Ecuador. Its fiercely independent and progressive populace has at times rebelled against the government in Quito. Today, it is a city of 2 million, and some historians explain that the reason Guayaquil is not the nation’s capital is because the Spanish found Quito easier to control. Guayaquil’s history of trading dates back thousands of years, and its markets are still a big attraction.
People come from all over Ecuador to hawk their goods here, and bargains abound. The Central Highlands The most dramatic geographical feature of Ecuador is its central highlands. Here, a soaring stretch of the Andes splits into two local ranges, demarcating a magnificent central valley. The German explorer Humbolt aptly dubbed this valley the Avenue of the Volcanoes, for along it range most of Ecuador’s 51 volcanic peaks, 21 of which are presently active. Many wear snowy crowns all y …