The name of ‘Ecuador’ usually brings to one’s mind images of exotic land with a mix of pristine forests, clouded peaks, friendly people and dancing music. This is true but far from enough concerning this amazing part of the world we are to visit today. A glimpse means ‘to see something or someone for a very short time or only partly’ according to the Cambridge Dictionary which implies that we only can get partial views of such a varied country throughout a few articles but let me do my best!
But where are we going?
For those of the readers who might wonder where we are heading, Ecuador does stand on the equator line which divides the earth between Northern and Southern hemispheres. It borders to Colombia on the North and Peru on the East and South. The Eastern part consists of many kinds of tropical forests starting in Amazonia while the central part is no less than the stunning Andes Cordillera with volcanoes up to six thousand meters high while the Western slopes roll down to the Pacific Ocean offering an amazing array of scenes, not to forget the Galapagos islands some 1000km off the coast. Although the acreage of the state is rather modest with a mere 283000 square kilometers (somewhat smaller than Nevada) it has the most biodiversity per square kilometer of any country in the world!
From old times to today
The history of Ecuador is quite similar to its neighboring countries, home of various indigenous groups (Shuars, Waoranis, Cofan, Ashuars, and Seconas) who were made part of the Inca Empire in the years 1400s. The widespread use of Quichua language until today being one of the most apparent results of such colonization together with a few crumbling ruins. People opposed to Inca rule were even deported to Peru, Argentina and Bolivia while folks faithful to the invader were brought over from Bolivia and Peru. The most effective resistance came from inhabitants of the Amazonian areas who managed to stay free from the Inca hence keeping their native languages and traditions throughout the havoc. Not very long afterwards (years 1500) the Spanish took over and Quito (today’s capital) became in 1563 the official center of ‘real audiencia’, the ruling system of Spain in the area. In 1809 happened the first call for independence, actually the first for the whole Latin America, but it was the city of Guayaquil (nowadays the second largest city) which was granted full independence in 1820 while 1830 was the year for the whole country. Nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw many struggles with Colombia, Brazil and Peru, with quite a loss of lands to the benefit of those fierce neighbors. The last military conflict with Peru was in 1995, known as the Cenepa war. At the present time things have settled and the country is a safe and peaceful democratic republic.
A traveler’s dream
Safe and peaceful, this is indeed a feeling one will experiment while traveling around Ecuador. At least this is what I felt during the two months I spent there, going from Quito to Amazonia, Amazonia to the Andes, Andes to Podocarpus, Podocarpus to the Pacific coast and back to Quito…Of course you can run into trouble if roaming through wrong places in Quito or Guayaquil as they carry their share of bad people as in any big city but this would really be bad luck. In the course of two months, traveling by night bus to the remotest areas and by pirogue in the even more remote ones I never had negative encounters. Travelers who have tried Mexico or Panama buses which can scare the sweat out of any seasoned backpacker will be delighted to discover how effective and well kept public transportations in Ecuador are. The government has made major investing in buses, therefore those are often new, comfortable and with fully functioning brakes! Roads are also in rather good shape (Amazonian weather and Andean landslides can be troublesome of course) and drivers make a point at leaving bus stations right on time. Those stations are clean and usually offer all kinds of facilities from eating to hair cutting, shoe shining, Internet access, sugar cane juice and whole paraphernalia of compulsory gizmos every traveler may want! Buses usually depart to the various destinations at all time of day and night so you can either decide to enjoy the scenery on the road to Vilcabamba or snooze your way through the night towards Puerto Francisco de Orellana. As the country produces its own oil, diesel is very cheap which makes travel by road also dirt cheap. Once you reach your destination, whatever the size of the town you can find in no time a taxi to get you to your hotel, camping place, river transportation or nature reserve for a handful of dollars. Yes, dollars (usually called ‘dolarito’ which means ‘small dollar’) as Ecuador has dropped its national money the Sucre (from the name of Antonio Jose de Sucre, a leading figure of independence) and adopted in year 2000 the US dollar as currency in order to have a more reliable and stable economy.
Time to eat!
Another important matter for any traveler is food, as a French I am of course quite finicky when it comes to such a subject…Ecuador is not a famous destination for gourmets but there is still a large choice of food, usually healthy and cheap, to choose from. Actually you will get different courses depending on the area where you are; fish and other seafood are a must on the coast while roasted guinea pig is common in the Andes and insect larva skewers is a delicacy in Amazonia. Common staples are potatoes (do not forget this plant originates from this part of the world!), corn, plantain bbananas, cassava, rice, chicken, beef and pork. Roasted pig, called ‘chancho’ is a common dish served in both street and covered markets where the women offering the dish handle bits to the passersby in order to convince them of ordering a plate. ‘Patacon’ is made with green plantain mashed and fried, also called ‘toston’ or ‘frito’ and often served as side dish with fish. ‘Llapingachos’ are a mix of mashed potatoes and melted cheese often served with a peanut sauce and fried eggs. An unavoidable dish on the Pacific coast which is also available inland is the famous ‘ceviche’, based on raw fish marinated into lemon juice, onion, hot pepper, garlic and coriander and often comes with yams, corn, plantain and cassava, the dish is served as a cold soup, both nutritious and refreshing. A dish will cost around three or four dollars, not a bad deal for the quality. When it comes to drinks you have to forget about wines, unless you go for products from Argentina and Chile available only in posh restaurants but if you enjoy non-alcoholic drinks and juices you will be delighted! Anywhere you go you can find street vendors or small shops offering juices made right in front of you from the various fruits grown in the country. Mangoes and pineapples of course, water-melon and passion fruits, and lesser known ones such as tree-tomato, curuba (or banana passion fruit, a species only growing in altitude), cherimoya and guanabana both of the custard apple family. Sugar cane juice with lemon is widely available as well as many herbal drinks good for global health or aimed to enhancing the function of various parts of the body. If you are out on the week-end or at night you can of course get beer, Pilsener, Club or Biela plus a large choice of local stuff from artisanal breweries. The growth of sugar cane of course leads to strong booze, not recommended if you want to travel for a long time!
If this glimpse has convinced you of learning more about Ecuador make sure to follow me through the country in articles to come, we will roam Amazon, hike in Podocarpus and take it easy on the Pacific coast.