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The history of pre-Inca Ecuador is lost in a misty tangle of time and legend, and the earliest historical details date back only as far as the 11th century AD. It is commonly believed that Asian nomads reached the South American continent by about 12,000 BC and were later joined by Polynesian colonizers. Centuries of tribal expansion, warfare and alliances resulted in the relatively stable Duchicela lineage, which ruled more or less peacefully for about 150 years until the arrival of the Incas around 1450 AD.


Despite fierce opposition, the conquering Incas soon held the region, helped by strong leadership and policies of intermarriage. War over the inheritance of the new Inca kingdom weakened and divided the region on the eve of the arrival of the Spanish invaders.


The first Spaniards landed in northern Ecuador in 1526. Pizarro reached the country in 1532 and spread terror among the Indians thanks to his conquistadors' horses, armor and weaponry. The Inca leader, Atahualpa, was ambushed, held for ransom, 'tried' and executed, and the Inca empire was effectively demolished. Quito held out for two years but was eventually razed by Atahualpa's general, Rumiñahui, rather than be lost intact to the invading Spaniards. Quito was refounded in December 1534. Today, only one intact Inca site remains in Ecuador - Ingapirca, to the north of Cuenca.



There were no major uprisings by the Ecuadorian Indians, though life was abysmal under Spanish rule. Spain ruled the colony from Lima, Peru, until 1739, when it was transferred to the viceroyalty of Colombia. It was largely rural and conservative, with large estates of introduced cattle and bananas farmed by forced labor.


As a Creole middle class began to emerge, there were several attempts to liberate Ecuador from Spanish rule. Independence was finally achieved by Simón Bolívar in 1822. Full constitutional sovereignty was gained in 1830. The country's internal history has since been marked by fierce rivalry and occasional open warfare between the church-backed conservatives, based in Quito, and the liberals and socialists of Guayaquil.


Over the last 100 years, assassinations and political instability have increasingly invoked military intervention, and the 20th century has seen more periods of military rule than of civilian. In 1941, neighboring Peru invaded Ecuador and seized much of the country's Amazonian area. The 'new' border between the two countries - initially agreed upon and ratified by the 1942 Rio de Janeiro treaty - was finally recognized by both counties in a 1998 treaty. The squabbling ultimately died down because both countries were eager to impress potential foreign investors, who tend to be scared off by territorial skirmishes.


Despite its history of internal rivalry, border conflicts and six presidents in less than six years, life in Ecuador remained relatively peaceful up until the end of the millennium. In an attempt to stop the decline of Ecuador's currency, the sucre, which lost 75% of its value in less than a year, soon-to-be deposed president Jamil Mahuad made an unpopular announcement on January 10th that he would 'dollarize' the economy, replacing sucres with US dollars at a rate of 25,000 sucres per dollar. Thousands of non-violent protestors, including many indigenous leaders denouncing neoliberal economic policies, subsequently occupied government buildings in Quito and forced Mahuad's resignation.


Mahuad's vice-president, Guastavo Noboa, took office on January 22, 2000. Noboa was presented as one of the few honest politicians in a country where political corruption is the norm, although his political experience was minimal. His first comments were that he would eliminate political corruption and that he agreed with dollarization. Noboa has continued apace with implementation of dubious International Monetary Fund (IMF) economic 'structural adjustment' policies, in the face of increasing indigenous and working class opposition.


For travelers, this political upheaval presents pluses and minuses. The advantages are that prices remain low for risk-taking travelers with US dollars; the disadvantages are that protests often blockade roads and disrupt overland transport. Upscale travel to the Galapagos Islands hasn't been affected much, but a massive Janurary 2001 diesel tanker spill that released a 200,000 gallon oil slick just off the coast of San Cristobal Island has persuaded many packaged tourists to cancel their trips for the time being.