The Top 5 Cultural Experiences in Ecuador

Travelers flock to Ecuador each year to enjoy the country’s diverse regions, exotic wildlife, and of course the famed Galapagos Islands. Some visitors become so enthralled with Ecuador that their vacation becomes a permanent stay. But whether you’re a passer through or a smitten expat, don’t miss out on Ecuador’s vast cultural options.

Ecuador packs a big punch culture-wise into a small country and it can be tough to know where to start. But don’t let too many choices prevent you from experiencing any of them. Below are five of the best enriching experiences in Ecuador to give you a head start on your cultural journey.

Shop the Craft Market in Otavalo

South America’s largest native craft market is found in Otavalo, Ecuador. Spread at the base of a dormant volcano in the northern Andes, Otavalo’s sprawling street market beckons to both locals and tourists every Saturday of the year.

Here is where you’ll find hand-carved pieces of art, jewelry crafted from fine silver or tagua (a seed derived from palm trees), and baby-soft alpaca clothing. My favorite products at the market are the tapestries, many of which are still woven by hand. Wildlife and nature scenes are often displayed on these pieces, but you’ll find quite a few with designs inspired by the artist M.C. Escher.

As much fun as the shopping can be, the real benefit comes from mixing with the crowd. The focal point of this market is the Plaza de Ponchos where you’ll find a good selection of crafts along with open-air food stalls and tables at which to eat. From here the market stretches for several city blocks in all directions. You’ll encounter people hawking everything from pastries to coca tea to knock-off athletic shoes.

Visit a Shaman

From the Andes to the Amazon, Shamans who practice traditional medicine can be found. If you’re suffering from an ailment or simply want a thorough cleansing of the soul, seek out a Shaman for an authentic Ecuadorian experience.

Be aware though that many treatments are unorthodox by Western standards and may get a little messy; raw eggs and various liquids are often used. Some rituals include use of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca. In the event that you’d like to try this ritual you’ll want to be sure to find an experienced and highly recommended shaman as the plant must be handled properly.

Buy a Panama Hat

Panama hats may have become well-known thanks to their use by the men who labored on the Panama Canal, but their origins are purely Ecuadorian. Made from straw these hats come in varying degrees of quality, depending largely upon the tightness and evenness of the weave.

In the Ecuadorian town of Montecristi, just a few miles from the waves of the Pacific, these hats have been produced for generations. Take a day trip to the town and watch as weavers use techniques passed down through the ages to create an article that can sell for thousands of dollars. The finest hats will protect their owner from sun and rain, roll up tightly to fit into a narrow box yet retain their original form, and be watertight. By buying directly from the source you’ll save plenty of money on your own original piece of headwear.

Live Like an Ecuadorian

Ecuadorians are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality. One way to take full advantage of their welcoming attitude and also learn a bit about their traditions is to stay with a local family. Many Spanish language schools in the country will arrange homestays where you’ll live with an Ecuadorian family for a few days or up to a few months. Not only will you have the chance to practice and improve your Spanish skills with native speakers, but you’ll eat with them, attend events with them, and help in their daily routines.

If you’re feeling adventurous you can even stay with a whole village in the Oriente (Ecuador’s eastern region, in and around the Amazon Basin). Here you’ll be shown how to shoot a blowgun, grill fish wrapped in banana leaves, and identify edible jungle plants.

Explore Ancient Civilizations

Machu Picchu may be South America’s best known relic of times past, but Ecuador has its share of historical remnants. Ingapirca, located not far from the colonial city of Cuenca in the country’s southern highlands, is the site of a former Incan sun temple.

On your own you can stroll through the grounds and around the low bases of walls (sadly many of the rocks were removed by the Spaniards for their own construction projects). Eventually you’ll end up in the Temple of the Sun itself which is still largely intact. Better yet, hire a guide to learn more about the master craftsmanship of these stone structures and the rituals that were performed here during Incan times.

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