It’s estimated seven out of ten Ecuadorians use medicinal plants. Ethnobiologist Omar Vacas has spent 15 years researching local flora used for centuries to cure diseases. He published an article about traditional medicine used by the Kichwa people in the Napo jungle province. He says the Kichwas are often unaware that this info can be useful in developing pharmaceutical drugs. For example, balsa can reduce labor pains. There are 23 conditions including toothache and rheumatism that can be cured by plants used by the Kichwas. These include uña de gato (cat’s claw), ortiga brava, achiote de venda, palo de tortuga, sábila (aloe), ruda, dulcamara, sangre de drago (dragon’s blood), chancapiedra, chaya, valeriana, boldo, condurango and zarzaparrilla.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, settled cultures in what is now known as Ecuador were guided by deities. The Incas believed condors were the messengers of the gods. Sociologist Dimitri Peñasco says the condor is believed to lead the dead into an upper realm, called Hanan Pacha. This realm included the sky, sun, moon, stars, planets and constellations. The condor is also said to be able to morph into human form. This has been the inspiration for many legends.
It is Ecuador’s national bird, depicted on the flag and coat of arms as a symbol of bravery and power. Andean condors are one of the largest birds, with wingspans of up to 10 feet. Females lay their eggs in steep, rocky areas to protect them from predators. They can mainly be found in five areas of the country: Antisana Eco Reserve, Cotacachi-Cayapas Eco Reserve, Zuleta in Imbabura province, the Nabón region in Azuay province and Cajas National Park.
The Inca Empire at its zenith stretched along the Andes from the very south of Colombia, down through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and northwest Argentina.
It all began in the agricultural region of Cusco, Peru. The iconic Machu Picchu is several days’ trek from Cusco, probably built as an estate for the first Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Never discovered by Spanish conquerors, and thus covered in vegetation when revealed to the world in 1911, its location is undoubtedly fit for royalty.
In the saddle of two adjoining mountains inside a U-turn bend of the Urubamba river, surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, Machu Picchu was built for security as well as beauty. The distinctive peak of Huayna Picchu is regularly bathed in morning mist from the river below, and having only two access points, the site was easily defended.
It isn’t only the abundant wildlife that makes Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands totally unique.
Arriving at opposite sides of the same island (there are roughly 20 in total) can be like landing on different planets. You can even start climbing directly from some beaches to elevations of several thousand feet.
That’s because the Galapagos Islands are all relatively recent volcanic creations, between 2-5 million years old. The most geologically active are Isabela (the largest) and Fernandina, pictured left. They are also the most westerly (and thus youngest) islands.
The Galapagos boast the highest concentration of active volcanoes on earth. The most recent eruption of Wolf volcano (see top of picture) in 2015 was preceded by eruptions of Fernandina in 2009, Cerro Azul in 2008, Sierra Negra in 2005 and Alcedo in 1993.