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POPULATION: 13,927,650
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Quechua
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; some Pentecostal and Protestant churches


Ecuador, as its name suggests, straddles the equator in South America. Located north of present-day Peru, Ecuador once formed part of the Inca Empire. The Ecuadoran city of Quito, moreover, acted as a secondary capital of the empire. The Incas had built an extensive footpath system that linked Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire in Peru, to Quito, over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) away.

During colonial times Ecuador continued to be ruled from Peru, this time by the Spanish Viceroyalty in Lima. In 1822 Ecuador was led to independence by General Antonio José de Sucre, a lieutenant of famed liberator Simón Bolívar. Independence, however, did not lead to political stability. The 19th century was a time of intense political struggle between pro- and anti-Roman Catholic Church factions. Ecuador succumbed to military rule in the late 1800s and again in the 1960s and 1970s. Ecuador has experienced democratic rule since 1979.

Because of the economic mismanagement of the country's debt during the military regimes, Ecuador has experienced constant deficits and power struggles. Since the 1990s, a weak executive branch has had problems appeasing the ruling classes that are extensively represented in the legislature and judiciary. In fact, all three democratically elected presidents between 1996 and 2006 failed to finish their terms.

Contributing to the country's political volatility is the emergence of indigenous peoples, who account for 25% of the total population, as political actors. The failure of the government to deliver on promises of land reforms, lower unemployment rates, and provision of social services has mobilized indigenous groups and destabilized the executive power. In November 2006, the leftist economist Rafael Correa was elected to the office of president with 56.67% of the national vote. He campaigned on a platform that promised to eliminate the privileges of the traditional ruling elite. Immediately after taking power, Correa called for legislative elections in order to create a National Assembly in charge of writing a new constitution. The new constitution was scheduled to be completed by mid-2008.


Ecuador encompasses many geographical regions and therefore has a rich diversity of plants and animals. Ecuador has three broad geographic areas: the coast, the sierra (mountains), and the jungle lowlands. These varied geographical regions and climatic conditions have created many habitats that allow a rich diversity of wildlife and flora to thrive. Off the Pacific coast of Ecuador, furthermore, are the renowned Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos Islands, which are classified as a protected area by the Ecuadoran government, are scarcely populated by humans. Instead, they are home to sea lions, penguins, flamingos, iguanas, giant tortoises, and a great many other animals. It is said that Charles Darwin found the inspiration for his theory of evolution when he visited the Galápagos in 1835. The Galápagos Islands are now a popular destination for ecological tours.

As of July 2008, Ecuador's population was estimated at 13,927,650 people. However, since the 1999 economic crisis, nearly 20% of Ecuadorians have migrated to industrialized countries, such as the United States, Spain, and Italy, in search of a better quality of life.


The official language of Ecuador is Spanish. A significant proportion of its Andean population, however, speaks the ancient Inca language of Quechua and a variety of related dialects. Although mainly an Andean language, the Quechua language also spread into the lowland jungle areas at the time of the Spanish conquest as a result of migration and the influence of Quechua-speaking missionaries.

A variety of indigenous tribes still exist in the Ecuadoran Amazon. These native peoples have their own languages that are unrelated to Quechua. These groups include the Jivaro and the Waoroni.


A number of folk beliefs are common among rural dwellers, combining Catholic tradition and indigenous lore, as well as vestiges of medieval Spanish custom. 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 with a hat who preys on children. The blacks of Esmeraldas have inherited the folklore of their ancestors, including the figure of the tunda, an evil water spirit who takes the shape of a woman with a club foot.


Ecuador is predominantly a Roman Catholic country. Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish at the time of the conquest. The question of the role of the Church in state and society was one that generated significant political conflict in Ecuador. After independence from Spain, political struggle occurred between the pro-Church conservatives and the liberals, who believed in a more limited Church role. This political struggle ended with a constitution that ensured a separation of Church and State.

In the late 1960s, the Church in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America began to defend the poor and argue for social change. The "theology of liberation," as it was called, found religious justification for social change and political reform. Many bishops and priests spoke out against the government in defense of the rural poor.

Despite the strong grip of the Roman Catholic Church on Ecuadorians until the mid-twentieth century, its influence in rural society seems to be in decline. In the 1980s, Pentecostal and Protestant churches have begun to expand their influence in the countryside.


Christmas in many towns in Ecuador is celebrated with a colorful parade. In the town of Cuenca, reputed to have the most festive parade, townspeople decorate and dress up their donkeys and cars for the procession. On New Year's, the festivities include fireworks and the burning of effigies, made by stuffing old clothes. Many Ecuadorians take this opportunity to mock current political figures. These dummies are nicknamed viejos, or "old ones," and symbolize the passing year.

Carnaval, or Carnival, a major festival preceding Lent, is celebrated with much festivity. During the hot summer month of February, Ecuadorians 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 repress. It is virtually impossible to avoid getting wet during Carnival, and most Ecuadorians accept it with good humor.


Most Ecuadorians are Roman Catholic and, therefore, this religion marks major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death. Protestant, Pentecostal, and Amerindian Ecuador-ans 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 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm for the afternoon siesta. During this time, many offices and stores are closed. This custom, which exists in many Latin American countries, arose as a way to avoid working 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, one is expected to kiss the cheek of anyone to whom one is introduced, except in a business context where it is more appropriate to use a handshake. Female friends will kiss each other on the cheek, while male friends will often greet each other with a full embrace. This practice is very common in most Latin American countries.


The major cities of Ecuador, such as Quito and Guayaquil, are modern cities with offices and contemporary apartment buildings. The style of housing in these two cities, however, varies 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, in contrast, is a more modern, bustling port city of over 3 million people. Guayaquil's busy economy has attracted huge waves of migration from the Andean region. Nearly a third of Guayaquil's population live in large sprawling shantytowns with limited electricity and running water. The poor housing and limited availability of clean water create unsanitary conditions that can cause serious health problems. Infectious diseases are, therefore, a problem for many poorer Ecuadorians.

Middle-class homes and apartments in the major cities, however, have modern amenities and conveniences. These cities are densely populated, and few homes have large yards, such as those found in the United States. In most middle-class neighborhoods, in fact, houses are all connected side by side and, in this way, form a city block.

In rural highland areas, most small-scale farmers live in small one-room houses with thatched or tiled roofs. Most often, these homes have been built by the families themselves, with assistance from family and friends. In the jungle areas, housing structures are made of locally available materials, such as bamboo and palm leaves.

The people of the jungle regions face many critical health problems. Parasites and river blindness are problems caused by contaminated water supplies. Malaria also remains a problem in humid jungle areas that attract mosquitoes.


An Ecuadorian household typically consists of a nuclear family; that is, 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 in middle-class urban areas from that in rural village life. 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 petty trading. While there is a clear division between male and female roles in rural areas, both make important contributions to the household income.

In middle- and upper-class households, in contrast, women are less likely to work outside the home. Commonly, women in these social classes devote themselves to managing the household and rearing children. These patterns, however, are beginning to change. There are a growing number of middle- and upper-class women who continue their education and find jobs outside of the home.


Clothing worn in the urban areas of Ecuador is very Western. Men wear trousers and a pressed shirt, or a suit to work. Women wear both pants and skirts. Although jeans and tee-shirts are becoming the clothing of choice for Ecuadorian youth, the use of shorts is still rare.

Clothing outside of the major cities, however, is diverse. Perhaps the most distinctive dress in the Andean region is worn by the Otavalo Indians. The Otavalo are considered a subgroup of the Quechuas, as they speak the Quechua language. Otavalo men are distinctive for their long, black braids and their identical black and white outfits. Otavalo men dress impeccably in white short trousers, white buttoned shirts, and solid black ponchos. They also wear stiff felt hats and sandals. Otavalo women wear delicately embroidered white blouses.


Ecuador is an Andean country and its population has relied on the potato as a staple crop since pre-Inca times. Over 100 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 also forms an important part of the diet in coastal areas. A common snack item, popular throughout Ecuador, is empanadas—little pastries filled with meat, onions, eggs, and olives. Empanadas are sold in bakeries or by street vendors and can be considered the Ecuadorian equivalent of fast food.

Bananas are also an important part of the diet. Some varieties of bananas, such as plantains, are a nonsweet, starchy vegetable like a potato. They need to be cooked and 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 very 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 compulsory until age 14. In practice, however, there is a serious problem with illiteracy and a high proportion of students drop out of school. This problem is most severe in rural areas. For many rural families, children can play an important role by working on the landholding. It is difficult for many families to survive without this labor and many children receive only minimal formal schooling. Currently, more than 100,000 five-year-old children are not able to enter first grade, and more than one million children between the ages of 5 and 18 do not access formal education.


Much of Ecuador's musical tradition has Andean roots. Pre-colonial instruments and musical styles are still popular in Ecuador. Flutelike instruments include the quena, an instrument used throughout the Andean countries. However, regional variations do exist. While most panpipes played in Peru or Bolivia comprise two rows of bamboo, the traditional Ecuadorian rondador has only one row. Other important wind instruments include the pinkullo and pifano. The Andean culture has also been influenced by its colonial past. Brass instruments are very popular in the Andes, and many village festivals and parades feature brass bands. String instruments were also introduced by the Spanish and adapted by the Andean peoples.

The coastal tradition draws more from Caribbean and Spanish influences. 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 also has a strong literary tradition. Its most well-known writer is Jorge Icaza, who wrote a moving book about the plight of the Ecuadorian Amerindians. His most famous book, The Villagers, describes a brutal takeover of indigenous 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. Many male youths find employment as field workers on sugarcane or banana plantations. This work is difficult and laborious and pays extremely poorly.

Ecuador also has a fair-sized manufacturing industry. Food processing, which includes activities such as flour milling and sugar refining, are important to the economy. However, much of the urban population makes a living not from employment, but by creating a small-scale enterprise. Home "cottage" industries include dressmaking, carpentry, and shoemaking, among others. 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, an economic boom was sparked by the extraction of oil, and 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 appear limited.


Spectator sports are popular in Ecuador. Soccer, as elsewhere in Latin America, is a national pastime. Bullfighting, a sport introduced by the Spanish, is also popular. Famous bullfighters (known as matadores) from Spain or other South American countries come to Ecuador and attract huge crowds. In some rural villages, a nonviolent version of bullfighting 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. Another blood sport that is prevalent throughout Ecuador is cockfighting. This entails tying a knife to the foot of a rooster (or cock) and having it fight another rooster. These fights usually end up in the death of one of the roosters.

Ecuadorians are also fond of playing different types of paddle ball. One type of paddle ball uses a heavy 1-kg (2-lb) 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 racquetball is also played, although membership in clubs with courts can be prohibitively expensive.


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 and involve music, dancing, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages, such as chicha, brewed from corn.

In urban areas, many Ecuadorans go to peñas on weekends for a special night out. Peñas are clubs that feature traditional music and folklore shows. This is often a family outing, even though these shows often go on until the early morning. When teenagers or young adults go out on their own, they 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 actually 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. While Panama hats are still made in Ecuador, 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, ranging from woven textiles, to woodcarvings, to ceramic goods. The market at Otovalo, near Quito, is sometimes claimed to be the most extensive and varied market in all of South America. This market 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. Today, the Otovalo market continues to be an outlet for handwoven, vegetable-dyed textiles and tapestries made by the Otovalo Indians.


Poverty is one of the worst social problems in Ecuador. While almost 30% of the population lives in poor conditions, poverty is more concentrated among indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian groups who live in rural areas. More than two thirds of poor people are from indigenous descent, and 60% of people living in poverty reside in rural areas and live from agriculture.


Machismo is a serious problem in Ecuador, as it is in other Latin American countries. It is common for men to feel that they should have unquestioned control over their wives, daughters, or girlfriends. Many Latin American men, in addition, believe in different standards of acceptable male and female sexual behavior. It is common for married men to have one or more long-term mistresses, while their wives are expected to be faithful and monogamous. Improvements in the education of women are beginning to make some impact on this behavior, as women increasingly are demanding greater respect. However, these beliefs are deeply ingrained in the culture and are difficult to change.

The country's civil code was amended in 1989 in order to address the issues of the legal status of women within marriage, the administration of conjugal property, mutual and responsible parenthood, marital rights and obligations of spouses, parental rights, and termination of marriage. Recent legislation also includes the Law to Combat Violence against Women, Children, and the Family; the Employment Protection Act; and the Free Maternity Reform Law. In addition, the government created an autonomous National Council for Women in 1997, aimed to coordinate public policies on gender issues. However, and in spite of laws and institutional machinery for equality, prevailing gender stereotypes still promote multiple forms of discrimination against women in daily life.

Even though Ecuador was the first Latin American country to grant women the right to vote, only 50% of women have voted in recent elections. In order to promote female participation in politics, the electoral law was reformed and quotas for women were established: women must constitute at least 20% of the lists of candidates for multi-person elections. This initiative led to 27% women's representation in local elections. In addition, the government has actively promoted the presence of women in the public sector. Since 1990 there has always been at least one female minister in the cabinet, and women have held the positions of governor and mayor as well. In 1994, 3 of the country's 69 ambassadors were female, and four years later 50% of participants in diplomatic training courses were women.


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—revised by C. Vergara