One of the most famous theories in the history of science was born in Ecuador.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection was derived during the weeks he spent on the Galápagos Islands. The sojourn is considered the pivot point for his 1859 book The Origin of Species, which laid out the case for humans sharing ancestry with apes.
Of course, the Galapagos are 620 miles west of Ecuador. That’s a continuing pattern with the country — something interesting always seems to be happening around them, while the country itself just kind of sits there, occasionally disputing its borders, but having little real impact on much of anything.
Sure, the cost of living is cheap, with $2000 a month buying a nice lifestyle. A three-bedroom apartment in the big city center is $600, a deal hard to duplicate elsewhere in the inhabited parts of the planet.
But those cheap stakes come at a price, since you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines when it comes to a lot of things that you might find important if you venture outside the cities — hot water, favorite foods, and top-line medical care are just three items that are hard to find. Ecuador is generally a place that moves slowly, which makes it a big favorite with retirees, who favor cheap and slow.
The good news is they trade in the US dollar, so there’s no kicking yourself for giving someone a $50 coin as a tip. The bad news is that a good number of the people are poor, despite the nation being an oil exporter. Thus, there’s an underlying bitterness, and law enforcement in the outback is often whatever the locals feel justified in doing. It’s a Catholic country, which means that everyone lives at home until marriage — which can cramp your style if you’re an active single.
The Republic of the Equator
Ecuador sits in northwest South America, with Colombia on the North, Peru on the east and south, and the Pacific to the west. Its capital is Quito; its largest city is Guayaquil; and Cuenca is a World Heritage site, a perfectly-planned example of a Spanish-style colonial city.
Like many countries in South America, the population is an ethnic hodgepodge, boasting 14 different peoples on its roll call. They are the descendants of the Native Americans and the Incas, the Spanish criollos and the Europeans, all blended together in a Spanish-speaking society that came together partly through intermarriage and trade, but mostly through invasion.
Ask someone about Atahualpa, the last Incan ruler, who promised to give conquistador Francisco Pizzaro a room filled with gold. At least, he promised it before they strangled him to death, after a kangaroo court. Proving that they were the gift that keeps on giving long before Frederick’s of Hollywood, the Spanish also introduced many infectious diseases to the local population, causing high fatalities to immune systems that had never encountered their virulence.
All of that changed, of course. Ecuador became independent in 1822, joining Simon Bolivar’s combination of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela briefly in its efforts to kick out the Spanish, before separating and going fully out on its own in 1830.
Being the ruler of Ecuador back then wasn’t a long-term career. As with poor Atahualpa, the Ecuadorans changed presidents like Kleenex in the early years. They finally achieved a measure of unity in the 1860s, when the world demand for cocoa raised prosperity. Today, it’s ostensibly a democracy, but it’s a tiny one — Ecuador today is a postage stamp that’s often compared in size to Arizona or Nevada.
They went through their military junta period; and had another coup as recently as 2010, a bloodless changing of the guard that, in keeping with Ecuadoran tradition, didn't really cause ripples elsewhere. Freedom of the press has since been curtailed, and protesters against the establishment are viewed as domestic terrorists.
Still, the people are generally friendly to outsiders. You might be invited to join them for a starch-rich meal heavy on the potatoes, bread, and rice. A typical three-course Ecuadorian meal consists of soup, rice with beef or pork or fish, then dessert and coffee. Of course, there will also be much quaffing of Aguardiente (a sugar cane-based spirit) or drinkable yogurt, a popular refreshment often consumed with pan de yuca (a light bread filled with cheese, and eaten warm).
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ecuador's charm as an unspoiled paradise of cheap living is rapidly fading. Spilled oil is wrecking the Amazonian rainforest and causing health problems. And even the Galápagos are endangered, as man’s encroachment into the delicate and isolated islands is threatening the existence of its exotic ecosystem.
Good thing Darwin beat the rush.