POPULATION: 11.5 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Quechua
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; some Pentecostal and Protestant churches
Ecuador is located in northwestern South America. It straddles the equator and is named for it. Ecuador once was part of the Inca Empire, and the Ecuadoran city of Quito was a secondary capital of the empire. The Incas built an extensive footpath system that linked Cusco (the capital of the Inca empire in Peru) to Quito, over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away.
During colonial times, Ecuador was ruled by the Spanish from their headquarters in Lima, Peru. In 1822, Ecuador was led to independence by General Antonio José de Sucre (1795–1830). He was a lieutenant of the famed freedom fighter Simón Bolívar (1782–1830), for whom neighboring Bolivia was named. However, independence in Ecuador did not lead to political stability. The nineteenth century was a time of intense political struggle between those who followed the Roman Catholic Church and those who were against it. Ecuador fell to military rule in the late 1800s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s. Ecuador has experienced democratic rule since 1979.
Ecuador has three broad geographic areas: the coast, the sierra (mountains), and the jungle lowlands. These distinct regions allow a rich diversity of wildlife to thrive. The renowned Galápagos Islands, located off the Pacific coast of Ecuador, are classified as a protected area by the Ecuadoran government. They are home to sea lions, penguins, flamingos, iguanas, giant tortoises, and many other animals. Charles Darwin (1809–82) is reported to have found inspiration for his theory of evolution when he visited the Galápagos in 1835. The Galápagos Islands are now a popular destination for ecological tours. Ecuador has a population of nearly 12 million people.
Spanish is the official language of Ecuador. However, a significant proportion of Ecuador's Andean population speaks the ancient Incan language of Quechua and a variety of related dialects. Quechua is mainly a language of the Andes Mountains, but it also spread into lowland jungle areas at the time of the Spanish conquest.
A variety of indigenous tribes exist in the Ecuadoran Amazon. These native peoples, including the Jivaro and the Waoroni, speak languages that are unrelated to Quechua.
A number of folk beliefs are common among rural dwellers, whose beliefs combine Catholic tradition with indigenous lore. The "in-between" hours of dawn, dusk, noon, and midnight are feared as times when supernatural forces can enter and depart the human world. Many rural folk fear the huacaisiqui , which are spirits of abandoned or aborted babies thought to steal the souls of living infants. A character specific to the Sierra region is the duende , a large-eyed sprite (elf) who wears a hat and who preys on children. Another feared creature is the tunda , an evil water spirit who takes the shape of a woman with a club foot.
Ecuador is predominantly a Roman Catholic country. In the late 1960s, the Church in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America began to defend the poor and work for social change. Many bishops and priests spoke out against the government in defense of the rural poor.
The influence of the Roman Catholic Church in rural society seems to be declining. In the 1980s, Pentecostal and Protestant churches began to expand their influence.
Christmas in many towns in Ecuador is celebrated with a colorful parade. In the town of Cuenca, townspeople decorate and dress up their donkeys and cars for the procession. On New Year's, festivities include fireworks and the burning of effigies (representations of disliked people), made by stuffing old clothes. Many Ecuadorans take this opportunity to mock current political figures.
Carnival, an important festival that precedes Lent, is celebrated with much festivity. During the hot summer month of February, Ecuadorans celebrate Carnival by throwing buckets of water at each other. Even fully clothed passersby are at risk. Sometimes pranksters will add dye or ink to the water to stain clothing. In some towns, throwing water has been banned, but this practice is hard to stop. It is impossible to avoid getting wet during Carnival, and most Ecuadorans accept it with good humor.
Most Ecuadorans are Roman Catholic. They mark major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death, with Catholic ceremonies. Protestant, Pentecostal, and American Indian Ecuadorans celebrate rites of passage with ceremonies appropriate to their particular traditions.
In Ecuador, it is customary for most activity in cities to close down between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 PM for the afternoon siesta. This custom, which exists in many Latin American countries, arose as a way to avoid work during the intense afternoon heat. Most people go home for an extended lunch and even a nap. They return to work in the late afternoon when it is cooler and work until the early evening.
In Ecuador, people kiss each other's cheek when introduced, except in a business situation where handshakes are more appropriate. Female friends kiss each other on the cheek; male friends often greet each other with a full embrace. This practice is common in most Latin American countries.
The major cities of Ecuador—Quito and Guayaquil—are modern cities with contemporary offices and apartment buildings. However, the style of housing in these two cities differs as a result of their histories and locations. Quito, in the dry Andean highlands, is characterized by beautiful colonial architecture. The city remains relatively small as a result of its isolated, high-altitude location. Guayaquil is a more modern city of over two million people. Guayaquil's economy has attracted waves of migration from the Andean region. Nearly one-third of Guayaquil's population live in sprawling shantytowns (settlements of shacks) with limited electricity and running water. The inadequate housing and limited availability of clean water create unsanitary conditions that can cause serious health problems.
Middle-class homes and apartments in the major cities have modern conveniences. Cities are densely populated, and few homes have large yards such as those found in the United States. In most middle-class neighborhoods, houses are all connected side by side to form a city block.
In rural highland areas, most small-scale farmers live in modest one-room houses with thatched or tiled roofs. These homes are usually built by the families themselves, with assistance from relatives and friends.
In the jungle areas, housing structures are made of locally available materials, such as bamboo and palm leaves.
An Ecuadoran household consists of a husband, a wife, and their children. It is also common for grandparents or other members of the extended family to join the household. The role of women differs greatly between middle-class urban areas and rural villages. In Andean communities, women play an important role in the economic activities of the household. In addition to helping plant gardens and tend animals, many women are involved in trading. While there is a clear division between male and female roles, both make important contributions to the household income.
In middle-and upper-class households, women are less likely to work outside the home. Women of these social classes generally devote themselves to managing the household and rearing children. However, these patterns are beginning to change. A growing number of middle-and upper-class women pursue an education and find jobs outside of the home.
Clothing worn in the urban areas of Ecuador is typically Western. Men wear suits, or trousers and pressed shirts, to work. Women wear either pants or skirts. For young people, jeans and T-shirts are becoming more popular. However, shorts are rarely worn.
Clothing outside of the major cities is diverse. Perhaps the most distinctive dress in the Andean region is worn by the Otavalo Indians, a subgroup of the Quechuas of Peru. Many Otavalo men wear their hair in long, black braids. They dress in a unique black-and-white outfits consisting of a white shirt, loose-fitting white pants that stop at mid-calf. Shoes are made of a soft, natural fiber. Topping off the costume is a striking black poncho made from a large square of fabric. Otavalo maintain this unique style of dress to show their ethnic pride. Otavalo women wear delicately embroidered white blouses.
Ecuador's population has relied on the potato as a staple crop since pre-Inca times. Over one hundred different types of potatoes are still grown throughout the Andes. A traditional Andean specialty is locro, a dish of corn and potatoes, topped with a spicy cheese sauce. Seafood is an important part of the diet in coastal areas. A common snack item, popular throughout Ecuador, is empanadas— small pastries filled with meat, onions, eggs, and olives. Empanadas are sold in bakeries or by street vendors. They can be considered the Ecuadoran equivalent of fast food.
Bananas are also an important part of the diet. Some varieties of bananas, such as plantains, are nonsweet and starchy like a potato. They are used in stews or are served grilled. Grilled bananas are often sold by street vendors.
Coffee is also grown in the Andean highlands. Coffee in Ecuador is served in a very concentrated form, called esencia. Esencia is a dark, thick coffee that is served in a little container alongside a pot of hot water. Each person serves a small amount of coffee into his or her cup, then dilutes it with hot water. Even diluted, this coffee is very strong.
In Ecuador, education is officially required until the age of fourteen. In practice, however, there is a serious problem with illiteracy (inability to read and write), and a high proportion of students drop out of school. This problem is most severe in rural areas. For many rural families, children receive only minimal formal schooling because their labor is needed to work the land. Many families could not survive without the labor their children provide.
Much of Ecuador's musical tradition has its roots in precolonial times (before Spanish rule). Instruments and musical styles from that era are still popular in Ecuador. Flute-like instruments include the quena, an instrument used throughout the Andean countries. Other important wind instruments include the pinkullo and pifano. Brass instruments are very popular in the Andes, and many village festivals and parades feature brass bands. Stringed instruments were also introduced by the Spanish and adapted by the Andean peoples.
Caribbean and Spanish influences are more predominant along the coast. Colombian cumbia and salsa music are popular with young people in urban areas. American rock music is also played on the radio and in urban clubs and discos.
Ecuador has a strong literary tradition. Its most well-known writer is Jorge Icaza (1906–78). His most famous book , The Villagers, describes a brutal takeover of indigenous (native) people's land. This book raised awareness of the exploitation of indigenous peoples in the Andes by landowners. Although it was written in 1934, it is still widely read in Ecuador today.
Work and lifestyles in Ecuador vary dramatically from region to region. In the mountains, most people are small-scale subsistence farmers, growing only enough food to feed their families. Many male youths find employment as field workers on sugarcane or banana plantations. This work is difficult and laborious, and pays extremely poorly.
Ecuador has a fair-sized manufacturing industry. Food processing, which includes flour milling and sugar refining, is important to the economy. However, much of the urban population makes a living not from wage labor, but by creating small-scale enterprises. Home "cottage" industries include dressmaking, carpentry, and shoemaking. Street vending also provides an economic alternative for many women in both the Sierra and the urban slums.
Ecuador is also an oil-rich country. In the 1970s, the extraction of oil created an economic boom; hundreds of thousands of jobs were created by the growing oil industry. In the 1980s, however, the boom ended with Ecuador's growing debt and declining oil prices. Ecuador still produces oil, but its reserves are limited.
Spectator sports are popular in Ecuador. As elsewhere in Latin America, soccer is a national pastime. Bullfighting, introduced by the Spanish, is also popular. In some rural villages, a nonviolent version of bull-fighting provides entertainment at some fiestas. Local men are invited to jump into a pen with a young bull calf to try their skills as matadors (bullfighters).
Another blood "sport" that is prevalent throughout Ecuador is cockfighting. This involves tying a knife to the foot of a rooster (or cock) and having it fight another rooster. These fights usually end up with the death of one of the roosters.
Ecuadorans are also fond of various types of paddle ball. One type of paddle ball uses a heavy two-pound (one-kilogram) ball and appropriately large paddles with spikes. A variation of this game uses a much smaller ball, which is hit with the hand rather than with a paddle. Standard racquet-ball is also played.
The principal form of entertainment in the Andes is the regular festivals or fiestas that exist to mark the agricultural or religious calendar. These fiestas often last for days. They involve music, dancing, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages such as chicha, brewed from corn.
In urban areas, many Ecuadorans go to penas on weekends for a special night out. Penas are clubs that feature traditional music and folklore shows. These are often family outings, even though the shows frequently last until early morning. Teenagers or young adults are more likely to go to a club or disco that plays American rock and dance music. However, these clubs only exist in the major urban areas
Panama hats originated in Ecuador. These woven straw hats were made in the city of Cuenca. They were produced for export to California gold-rushers and were also sold in large quantities to workers building the Panama Canal, thus giving rise to the name. Panama hats became a huge export item for Ecuador in the early to mid-1900s. Panama hats are still made in Ecuador, but they are no longer in great demand overseas. A good Panama hat, it is claimed, can be folded up and passed through a napkin ring, and it will then reshape itself perfectly for use.
Ecuadorans produce a wide variety of handcrafted goods, including woven textiles, woodcarvings, and ceramic goods. The market at Otovalo is sometimes claimed to be the most extensive and varied market in all of South America. It was established in pre-Inca times as a major market where goods from the mountains could be exchanged for goods from the lowland jungle areas.
Machismo (an exaggerated display of masculinity) is a serious problem in Ecuador, as in other Latin American countries. It is common for men to feel that they should have unquestioned control over their wives, daughters, or girlfriends. In addition, many Latin American men believe in different standards of acceptable sexual behavior for men and women. Married men often have one or more long-term mistresses, while their wives are expected to be faithful. Improvements in the education of women are beginning to impact on this behavior as women are demanding greater respect. However, these beliefs are deeply ingrained in the culture and are slow to change.
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Hanratty, Dennis, ed. Ecuador, a Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1991.
Perrotet, Tony, ed. Insight Guides: Ecuador. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
Rachowiecki, Rob. Ecuador and the Galapagos: A Travel Survival Kit. Oakland, Calif.: Lonely Planet Publications, 1992.
Rathbone, John Paul. Cadogan Guides: Ecuador, the Galapagos and Colombia. London: Cadogan Books, 1991.