Quito and the Highlands

Community Highlights Central / South America & The Caribbean Quito and the Highlands

For the last week, I have been on a whirlwind trip through spectacular Ecuador! This small South American country of 22 million people seems to be comprised of towering volcanos, lush Amazon jungle, and all of the landscapes in between.

Ecuador got its name in the 18th century when a group of French and Spanish scientists developing measurements of the Earth came to the capital Quito. Ecuador, which means ‘equator’ in Spanish, straddles the invisible equatorial line around the planet. Quito is jammed into a valley through an avenue of extinct volcanos, at an altitude of 2800 meters. It has a cooler climate than you might expect at the equator, and is one of the highest capitals in the world. It also has more hilly terrain than other equatorial countries. The scientists used the volcanic peaks surrounding Quito to set up the 3 necessary reference points to take accurate measurements for maps pinpointing the El Mitad del Mundo (equator) at about 19 km north of Quito.


The Old Town in Quito is a UNESCO world heritage site. Known for colonial architecturedating back to 1534 when the Spaniards defeated the Incas. Ecuador had been conquered by the Incan empire from Peru a few decades prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Incan general destroyed the Incan Quito rather than have it fall into Spanish hands. The Catholic church then followed their usual script to subjugate and convert the local population. In the same year, the San Francisco order started construction of a grand church, monastery, and grand plaza on a sacred indigenous site. This is why on the summer and winter solstice, the sun illuminates the main altar of the church! In the meantime, the Spanish Conquistadors headed to the Amazon in search of gold.
Indigenous people were not well treated by the Spaniards. Many died of European diseases, or were worked to death, others were trained to construct and decorate the various elaborately decorated churches in a European Baroque/Moorish style. Many Indigenous people became very skilled artists, developing a unique European-Ecuadorian style of religious painting known as the Quitena school which was famous for the use of gold paint. However, there was little respect. Most Indigenous artwork is anonymous or unsigned. In the elaborate church facades and interiors, Indigenous artistes showed their independence by carving faces with Indigenous features and Ecuadorian plants and fauna. Many of the grand churches took decades to complete and were dripping in gold procured from the Amazon. Eventually, the Ecuadorians led by Simon Bolivar from Venezuela liberated themselves, declaring independence from Spain in 1830.

Today, 90% of Ecuadorians identify as indigenous, or of mixed indigenous/Spanish heritage. As set in motion by the Spaniards, Indigenous people often face discrimination and poverty. Some groups have done better than others. North of Quito in the Ecuadorian highlands at the base of the Imbabura Volcano is Otavalo. The Otavalenos are part of the largest Indigenous groups in Ecuador (Kichwa) and are the most economically successful. They have built an industry around colourful textiles and handicrafts with traditional patterns in cotton, sheep and alpaca wool. The famous Saturday street market in Otavalo showcases the range of products, mostly machine woven, produced in Otavalo. Workshops still exist where the wool is hand carded, spun, and dyed using traditional methods, and then woven into products using a back strap loom, but there are few. Otavalenos are proud of there traditions – ladies dress in white blouses with elaborate embroidery and blue skirts while men wear blue ponchos with their dark hair in a single braid down their backs.
Ecuador’s many volcanoes have been shaped daily life in countless ways. Of course there is the odd volcanic eruption, but there also more subtle influences. Earthquakes are common, many cities like Papallacta and Banos have built a spa industry around their thermal hotsprings, the glaciers melt from the peaks of many of these volcanos not only feed spectacular lakes and waterfalls, but generate hydro electricity for the entire country. The accumulation of volcanic ash over millions of years has created extremely fertile soil for agriculture, and the variety of elevations from 4000m down to sea level ensures a diversity of crops and wildlife. As well, in the Amazon jungle, the regular flooding of the Napo River deposits rich sediment which has the same effect.
In addition to the usual crops of high altitude such as corn and potatoes, Ecuador produces more moderate altitude crops like broccoli, carrots, watermelons, grapes, black berries, and apples. The range of sweet and juicy tropical fruit is amazing! In addition to bananas, there are cacao, oranges, lemons, guava, sugar cane, papaya, soursop, dragon fruit, and passion fruit. There were types of fruit I have never seen before – naranjilla (resembles an orange) and tomato fruit (cross between a tomato and dragon fruit).
Interestingly enough, Ecuador’s main exports are bananas, long stem roses, cacao (seed of this fruit is roasted to make chocolate), and oil. In the highlands, the greenhouses for the roses were everywhere! You could purchase a bouquet of 2 dozen roses for US$3-5. Mind blowing! Another common roadside site was the agave plant (looks like an aloa vera plant on steroids). Indigenous groups have been using all parts of the agave plant for thousands of years—the agave pulp for soap and the fibers for weaving, or to make strong rope. Recently, Ecuadorians have started to distill a new whisky from agave called miskay.


This featured blog entry was written by Caro369 from the blog Ecuador.
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By Caro369

Posted Mon, Jun 03, 2024 | Ecuador | Comments