Planning a trip to Ecuador?
Or planning a major move to Quito or Cuenca and want to learn more about the country?
In this article, you’ll find a list of the BEST books on Ecuador, including a bunch on history, politics, economics, and culture as well as lots of great novels set in the country. The sweet thing is that I have read just about all of the books on the list, so I’ll tell you my favorites and least favorites and which ones helped me make sense of the country during my time there. In this way, you don’t have to waste your time or money on one that just isn’t worth it.
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In This Post, You’ll Find…
Ecuador Books – Nonfiction
Let’s begin this list of Ecuador books with non-fiction. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of books on the country written in English or translated from Spanish into English. However, I have discovered a few gems that you must, must, must read if you want to understand the country better.
For those of you who want to cheat and skip all my blah blah blah, these are my three ABSOLUTE favorite non-fiction books about Ecuador:
To find out why they are my top three, keep on reading…
1. Portrait of a Nation: Culture and Progress in Ecuador
By Osvaldo Hurtado; Barbara Sipe (Translator), 2007
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“A society that consecrated social inequalities from the time of birth—and maintained them for life thanks to a system of domination that ensured their immutability—curbed the incentive for those who occupied the lower strata of the social pyramid to use their work as a means of rising out of poverty and improving their social and economic status. On the other hand, certain that their social situation would not be challenged, those who occupied higher positions did not find it necessary to perform their activities with dedication and determination since there was no threat of competition and their economic position would not be improved through greater effort.”
Let’s start with the BEST book on Ecuador—Portrait of a Nation.
THIS is the book to read for those of you moving to Ecuador. It’ll help you make sense of why the country is the way it is. Perhaps it’ll save you from pulling out your hair when you’re faced with your first bite of culture shock.
Written by Osvaldo Hurtado, Portrait of a Nation was a best seller in Ecuador from 2007 to 2008—very surprising considering this is a book on economics. That’s gotta convince you to read it!
Hurtado argues that Ecuador isn’t prosperous and doesn’t have strong democratic institutions because of its culture. He cites evidence going back over 400 years of the country’s history, showing how Ecuador’s culture has held the country back.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Sounds racist.
He actually argues that Ecuador’s hierarchical race and class-based system of keeping the indigenous in slavery and poverty is one of the major cultural factors that have kept the country from developing.
I will warn you, though: Don’t expect scintillating prose. Hurtado’s writing can be dry and repetitive.
However, I think if you really want to understand Ecuador, Portrait of a Nation will not be dull. The insights into the relationship between a country’s culture and its economy give one a lot to think about.
I wish there was a book like this on every country in the world.
2. Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win
By Paul M Barrett, 2014
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Many observers describe the Oriente pollution case as a conflict between the giant American oil producer (evil or abused, depending on one’s perspective) and the plaintiffs (innocent or manipulative). In fact, the dispute is more complicated. The country of Ecuador and its government-owed oil company bear heavy responsibility for what transpired in the jungle.”
Law of the Jungle is the Ecuador book I wish I had read BEFORE visiting the Amazon. It would have made my trip there even more memorable. I would also have been able to ask my guide better questions about the Amazon.
In the 1960s, oil was discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Texaco came in and started drilling wells and building a pipeline. Unfortunately, Texaco didn’t line the waste pits properly or prevent the oil from getting into the rivers, lakes, and lagoons of the Amazon. Petroleum seeped into the soil that people used for growing their crops and leaked into the water supply that people used for bathing and drinking. Many got sick and died.
In the 1980s, a group of American lawyers led a class action lawsuit against the American oil company. Law of the Jungle follows the 20+ years that this lawsuit took to go through the U.S. and Ecuadorian courts.
Law of the Jungle is one of those books that can change your way of thinking about the world–open your eyes to reality. I used to have this fantasy that the good guys were always honest, selfless, and ethical and the bad guys were dishonest, selfish, and unethical and would lie, cheat, and steal to get their way. This lawsuit taught me that the good guys can be just as bad as the bad guys. Not what you probably want to learn, but hey, that is life, isn’t it?
The story has a cast of unforgettable characters but none of them are heroes. None at all. That may be the saddest part of all. The environmental do-gooders are as corrupt as the oil companies they are fighting.
My one criticism is that I wish the authors had spent more time getting to know the Ecuadorians as well as the Americans. Still, a great book!
Overall, read The Law of the Jungle. It’s a revealing look at the legal and political system of Ecuador.
3. The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale Of Love, Murder, And Survival In The Amazon
By Robert Whitaker (2008)
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“In many ways, the Charles Marie de La Condamine expedition—which provides the backdrop for this story of Isabel Godin’s adventure in the Amazon—occupies a central place in South American history, akin to the exploration of North America by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark.”
The Mapmaker’s Wife is another one of my favorite books on Ecuador. If you like travel books or if you really want to understand the history of Ecuador, you’ll love it as well.
Read this book BEFORE or DURING your visit to Quito!
The book is the true story of the French scientists who came to Ecuador in the 1700s to determine the exact shape of the Earth at the equator. You can see the work of these French scientists at the popular Quito tourist attraction, La Mitad del Mundo. This is where the equator is supposed to be. It’s actually off by 240 meters—not the fault of the French whose original monument was destroyed by Ecuador.
The Mapmaker’s Wife is a bit slow at first when the author is presenting an overview of the histories of measuring the size and shape of the Earth and the Spanish Empire.
Don’t give up on the book. It does get better!
Once the French scientists make it to Ecuador, the book takes off and becomes a real page-turner. Their experience in Ecuador is full of adventure, hardship, and tragedy–makes for fun reading! It reminds me of the Guatemalan book, Jungle of Stones, which tells the story of John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood who traveled through Central America in the 1800s.
The book is also a fascinating and eye-opening description of life in colonial Ecuador in the 1700s. Much of what Hurtado wrote in Portrait of a Nation can be found here—the racist and classist system of Ecuador, appalling mistreatment of the indigenous people, xenophobia, isolationism, corruption, lack of trust, and violence. There are also some enlightening scenes depicting the animosity between the Criollo and the Spanish-born citizens–a precursor to the War of Independence a century later.
The last one-third of the book is devoted to the even more riveting story of Isabel Grameson, the wife of one of the scientists. The couple had been separated for over 20 years when Isabel crossed South America to reunite with her husband. Her journey is one of the greatest stories of love and survival of all time.
I really loved this book not only for the stories of adventure but also for what it revealed to me about Ecuador. Definitely a keeper!
4. The Panama Hat Trail
By Tom Miller, 1986
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Panama hat creation, whether in the Montecristi region or hats woven in the Cuenca area, has one characteristic: the hats are woven by hand and hand only, with no mechanical devices involved. Accept no substitutes.”
I have a confession to make:
When I started reading The Panama Hat Trail, I was in Panama and I thought the book was going to be about Panama because I assumed Panama Hats were made in the country they’re named after.
I learned quickly that Panama Hats are NOT made in Panama. They are made in Ecuador. When Americans started buying the hats in the 1800s, they bought them in Panama while crossing the isthmus during the Gold Rush and the construction of the Panama Canal. They were named after their point of purchase and NOT where they were made.
Hence, this is a book about Ecuador and NOT Panama.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what’s the book about?
First, it’s about how Panama Hats are made in Ecuador. The author, Tom Miller, takes you from the straw fields of coastal Ecuador to the Andean homes of weavers who turn the straw into hats. Then he follows the middlemen as they buy from the weavers for 65 cents a hat and sells them to the exporters. Finally, he ends the trail in shops in the U.S. where the hats sell for 200 times the price weavers get for their weaving.
Second, it’s a book about the people, places, culture, and history of Ecuador—the oil industry’s footprint in the Amazon, the student protests in Cuenca, the financial crisis that hit Ecuador in the 1980s, the differences between Quito and Guayaquil, and Peru’s invasion and annexation of Ecuador.
The Panama Hat Trail is good. My one quibble is that it’s quite out of date—Ecuador has changed a lot since it was written in the 1980s.
5. Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle
By Moritz Thomsen (1969)
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“In South America the poor man is an ignorant man, unaware of the forces that shape his destiny. The shattering truth—that he is kept poor and ignorant as the principal and unspoken component of national policy—escapes him. He cries for land reform, a system of farm loans that will carry him along between crops, unaware that the national economy in almost every country sustained by a one-crop export commodity depends for its success on an unlimited supply of cheap labor. Ecuador needs poor men to compete in the world banana market; Brazil needs poverty to sell its coffee; Chile, its tin; Colombia, its cacao and coffee, and so on.”
Book #5 on this list is the evocative and deeply personal Living Poor by one of the greatest travel writers you’ve never heard of—Moritz Thomsen. No one captures a place as well as Thomsen does—not even Paul Theroux. He does it perfectly here in his memoir about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer along Ecuador’s northern coast.
Thomsen joined the Peace Corps in the 1960s after losing his farm at the age of 50. He went to Ecuador to teach the Ecuadorians new ideas in agriculture and capitalism. Thomsen eventually ended up in Rio Verde, a remote village along the coast, where the people were as poor as poor could be. He lived just like everyone else in Rio Verde—rats running over him as he slept, no electricity, no meat, no medicine, etc.
The heart of the book lies in Thomsen’s interactions with the locals. He has a unique ability to find humor in the cultural differences and many daily challenges.
The other thing that makes this book such a gem is Thomsen’s honesty about himself and his own prejudices and failures. He reveals his feelings of isolation, frustration, and self-doubt as he tries to adapt to a life vastly different from the one he left behind in the United States.
I wish I could write as well as Thomsen. He has such a beautiful flow to his writing that makes you speed through the book. It will not take you long to get through these 300 pages.
It’s also considered by many to be the BEST book on the Peace Corps.
6. The Farm on the River of Emeralds
By Moritz Thomsen (1989)
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
The Farm on the River of Emeralds chronicles the first four of eight years he spent trying to make his farm a success. Those four years are filled with struggle after struggle—land that floods, droughts that dry up crops, neighbors that steal, markets that dry up, and weeds that pull his house apart.
Thomsen’s writing, observations, honesty, and humor here are technically just as brilliant as they were in Living Poor.
However, I just couldn’t get into The Farm on the River of Emeralds like I could with his first one and in the end, I didn’t finish it (up to around page 100). It’s just more of the same struggles he had in the first book. The only difference is that he’s no longer Ramón’s teacher. Thomsen is either more on an equal footing with his partner or he’s learning from him.
The most interesting part for me was learning about his life BEFORE Ecuador. Once you learn about his background a lot about his writing and his life choices make more sense. Still, it couldn’t motivate me to finish it.
7. Illegal: A True Story of Love, Revolution and Crossing Borders
By John Dennehy, 2017
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“We can still have borders and still have some restrictions but why shouldn’t admission to migrants be the norm, and their exclusion the exception? Why shouldn’t we all be born with freedom of movement as a universal human right, and only lose that right after committing a crime?”
Illegal is another memoir of a gringo’s adventure in Ecuador. I whizzed through this book—it’s both fun and informative with some interesting insights into the politics of Ecuador that I didn’t know about before—particularly info on the presidency of Rafael Carrea.
Disillusioned with his country after its invasion of Iraq and the re-election of George Bush, 22-year-old John Dennehy moves to Cuenca to teach English.
Almost immediately, Dennehy becomes enamored with the political activism of the Ecuadorians. They are nothing like his passive and apathetic fellow Americans. Ecuadorians are politically aware and are willing to fight those in power. Dennehy gets involved in the student protests against President Gutierrez and a free trade agreement with the U.S.
Mixed in with the politics is a screwed-up romance between Dennehy and lying Lucia. His love for this woman drives him to do one stupid thing after another.
Meanwhile, Dennehy is dealing with a precarious visa situation that results in him getting deported from Ecuador. I’m not giving away anything here as it’s in the first chapter of the book. But the deportation doesn’t end his struggles with Ecuadorian immigration; it makes it worse!
Illegal has some interesting themes on borders, migration, and nationalism that are good food for thought. Why is it so easy for goods and services to cross borders but so difficult for people?
However, the highlight for me was learning more about Rafael Carrea’s presidency. One of my tour guides in Quito gushed about Carrea. Dennehy, on the other hand, presents a different side to him that I found very valuable in making sense of Ecuador’s current elections.
8. Ecuador – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture
By Russell Maddicks, 2022
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Ecuador: Culture Smart by Russell Maddicks is a compact and insightful guide that delves into the heart of Ecuadorian culture, making it an invaluable resource for travelers, expatriates, or anyone interested in understanding this diverse South American nation.
Maddicks opens the door to Ecuador’s cultural diversity, showcasing its rich history, traditions, and contemporary life. Each chapter covers a specific aspect of Ecuadorian culture, from history and religion to social customs, communication, and more.
One of the book’s strengths is its historical context. Maddicks provides a concise yet comprehensive overview of Ecuador’s tumultuous history, shedding light on the forces that have shaped the nation and its people. This historical foundation helped me understand the present-day cultural dynamics and challenges facing Ecuador.
The section on social customs and etiquette was particularly helpful for me. Maddicks offers valuable insights into the do’s and don’ts of Ecuadorian society, which helped me a lot in navigating my interactions with locals.
I also like the fact that the book doesn’t shy away from discussing the country’s challenges, including issues like poverty, politics, and environmental concerns. This balanced approach adds depth to the cultural exploration, providing you with a more holistic understanding of Ecuador’s complexities.
However, Ecuador: Culture Smart does have some limitations. The book, by its nature, cannot cover every nuance of such a diverse country, and if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of specific topics, I recommend getting Portrait of a Nation or just getting to know more Ecuadorians.
Overall, Culture Smart is an excellent starting point for understanding the country’s history, traditions, and contemporary life.
9. Lonely Planet Ecuador and the Galapagos
By Isabel Albiston, 2022
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
The only travel guide I used for mainland Ecuador was the Lonely Planet guide. It got me from Quito to Cuenca.
I like Lonely Planet Ecuador guide because it has a lot of off-the-beaten-path destinations. Other guides like Moon and Rough Guide do too, but their most recent publishing year is 2019. Lonely Planet’s is 2022. So it wins.
For Quito and Cuenca, many of the restaurants and hotels listed in the book are closed or have gone downhill. The Quito and Cuenca attractions are accurate and comprehensive. They’re not missing much. However, lots of misses on tours—especially Quito food tours that will introduce you to Ecuadorian cuisine.
The section on the Sierras is comprehensive, covering both major and minor tourist destinations—Banos, Cotopaxi, and Latacunga. However, the guide is useless when it comes to information on getting to these destinations.
The Amazon and Galapagos sections compete for the worst part of the guidebook. For the Amazon, the guide needs to help you make sense of the difference between the three different tourist sections: Tena, Cuyabeno Reserve and Yasuni National Park. Why would you choose one area over another?
Galapagos is a confusing and overwhelming destination—so many islands and so many itineraries—that it’s hard to figure out where you should and shouldn’t go. Lonely Planet just plops down all this information in front of you without helping you sift through it all.
The background section is useful to a point. I always appreciate their history section and their book and movie recommendations. However, rules and regulations change constantly in Ecuador such as visa extensions, so it’s safer to rely on blogs than on an outdated guidebook.
I still use guidebooks when I travel and I still use Lonely Planet. Just wish that they published better ones.
Ecuador Books – Fiction
This list of novels set in Ecuador includes ones written originally in Spanish and then translated into English as well as ones written originally in English. For those looking for books set specifically in the Galapagos, jump to this section here.
There are two books on this list that stand out above all others:
Continue reading down the list to find out why.
However, I do have some other books that I liked as well and these are…
- The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
- The Spanish Daughter
- Wish You Were Here
- Poso Wells
- The Amnesia Clinic
10. The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina
By Zoraida Còrdova (2021)
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5
“Latino families just think they’re cursed because they won’t blame God or the Virgin Mary or colonization.”
I’m not sure why I’m doing this to you—starting out with the Ecuador book I least liked. I guess my reasoning is that I’m starting out with the first novel set in Ecuador (and not the Galapagos) that I read.
The style of Inheritance of Orquidea Divina is magical realism and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably like it. The reviews on Good Reads are outstanding. For me, I just couldn’t get into it.
The book is told in two narratives. The first one tells the story of Orquidea Divina’s life growing up in Ecuador. The second one starts with Orquidea summoning her large family to her home for her death. She wants to give her descendants their inheritance. After her funeral, everyone disperses to live their own separate lives. Several years later someone or something begins threatening the three main characters, and to stop this threat, the family must go back into Orquidea’s past by traveling to Ecuador.
The writing has a nice flow to it and the characters are well developed. My problem is that I just couldn’t care enough about any of them to make me want to find out what happens to them in the end.
If you’re looking for a book to give you some insights into Ecuador, The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina is not it.
11. The Spanish Daughter
By Lorena Hughes, 2021
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
“She had one of those friendly faces that promised late nights, wine, and entertaining conversation.”
Written by Lorena Hughes, The Spanish Daughter is an engrossing and imaginative work of historical fiction set on a cacao plantation in 1920s Ecuador.
A bit of background about this period: From 1890 to 1930 Ecuador went through a cacao boom when it became the premier exporter of the chocolate bean. I won’t tell you why the boom stopped because that’s part of the story’s ending.
The main character is loosely based on a real person—Maria Purificacion Garcia, the inventor of the cacao bean roaster in 1847. Hughes depicts Purificacion (Puri) as an intelligent, strong, and resourceful woman from Sevilla, Spain. Her father left the family years ago when Puri was a child to make his fortunes growing cacao in Ecuador. He never returned to Spain. Instead, he had another family in Ecuador whom Puri didn’t originally know about. Then he dies and leaves most of his estate to her and not her siblings in Ecuador.
Puri and her husband Cristobal set off by ship to Ecuador. While on the trip, someone tries to murder her but ends up killing her husband instead. Puri learns that the killer was sent from Ecuador, so she does what no sane person would do in her situation: she impersonates her husband to discover her husband’s killer. The rest of the book follows Puri as she plays detective, gets to know her family, and finds a place where she truly belongs.
First of all, I’m a sucker for historical fiction especially ones that take place during a time period I know little about. Second, I love mysteries and this one has one that kept me reading. The characters are also complex and well-developed. There are some insightful commentaries on the social norms and expectations of the different genders.
My one complaint is that I found it farfetched that Puri is able to get away with disguising herself as a man by just putting on a fake mustache and beard, cutting her hair, and wearing trousers.
Overall, The Spanish Daughter is an interesting and fun book to add to your Ecuador reading list.
12. The Sisters of Alameda Street
By Lorena Hughes, 2017
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Papá had been many things: forgetful, cryptic, melancholic. But never duplicitous. Malena had always overlooked his flaws—they seemed so minor then—but this was not something you could just ignore. She sat on the bed, lightheaded. Her hands had turned clammy and cold. She couldn’t believe that her father, the mathematical genius respected by all who knew him, had lied to her all her life.”
The Sisters of Alameda Street is another engrossing and imaginative book written by Lorena Hughes, the same author of The Spanish Daughter. This one is less history and more mystery. However, the storyline also involves a farfetched plot involving a character pretending to be someone she’s not. But just go with the flow and I am sure you will enjoy it. I did even more than her other book.
The book takes place in the 1960s in San Isidro, Ecuador—a small city in the Sierras. Melana’s father has just committed suicide. She’s heartbroken, shocked, and confused.
While looking through her father’s things, Malena comes across a letter from her mother, who supposedly died soon after she was born. The letter, however, was written 15 years ago when Malena was five. Why did her father lie to her? The letter is only signed “A” (no name) and the address is on Alameda Street in San Isidro. Supposedly, (this is really farfetched) Malena’s father and grandmother never once mentioned her mother’s name.
Malena travels to the address in the letter, Alameda Street, to find her mother. Living at the address are four sisters. Of course, all of their names start with the letter “A.” The sisters assume that Malena is the daughter of their childhood friend who’s coming to live with them, and Malena lets them think this. She moves in with the family so that she can find out which one is her mother.
I love mysteries and this one has mysteries galore! Which of the 4 sisters is Malena’s mother? Who’s Malena’s father? Why did he commit suicide? Why does everyone ignore Alejandra? Why is Claudia so odd? I couldn’t stop reading it because I had to know the answer to all these questions.
The characters are well-developed—complex and interesting. The setting of the family’s jewelry store and house in this imaginary town in the Andes is drawn so authentically that it feels like you’re right there in the thick of all the scandals this family creates for itself.
The cultural and food nuggets dropped here and there also make this book interesting for anyone wanting to know more about the culture and cuisine of Ecuador.
Overall, I had a fun time reading The Sisters of Alameda Street. And…I do recommend the book.
13. Poso Wells
By Gabriel Alemán, 2018
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“’The country is in a terrible state, but we’re going to turn it around 360 degrees.”
A barely audible question came from an unseen reporter: “You mean you’re going to turn us in a complete circle and we’ll end up in the same place?”
Vinueza ignored this. “We’re at the edge of an abyss,” he pronounced, “and we need to take a step forward.”
“Off the cliff?” the same reporter asked.”
Now let’s look at some books on Ecuador translated from Spanish into English. Written by Ecuadorian Gabriela Alemán, Poso Wells hooked me from the first three pages and then lost me toward the end.
I loved the two main characters—a smart and sensitive investigative reporter, Gonzalo Varas, who wants to solve the disappearance of several women. But his newspaper doesn’t think it’s worth solving. Then there’s the smart and sassy Bella who lives in the slums of Poso Wells. She stands up to the gangs who run her community when no one else will.
The writing is good—witty and sarcastic—good jabs at corrupt politicians, western business people, and Ecuador’s machismo and religious culture.
I also loved the plot—two mysteries in one story.
Mystery #1 centers on the disappearance of more than 50 women from Poso Wells over the past 15 years. No one cares, though, because they are first, poor, and second, women.
Mystery #2 is more comical than tragic. A presidential candidate is accidentally electrocuted after wetting his pants on stage while giving a campaign speech in Poso Wells. Eleven other members of his campaign staff are on stage with the candidate and die as well except that is one guy who happens to be the successor candidate. He mysteriously goes missing.
However, as the book progresses the plot falters. Bella fades from the story only to become a passive love object of another character. Varas becomes a bit of a pervert. The plot concerning the disappeared women is solved too quickly and the disappearing candidate storyline veers off into the ridiculous.
Do I recommend this book?
Despite its flaws, Poso Wells is a decent introduction to Ecuadorian literature and a good addition to a South American reading list.
14. Family Album
By Gabriela Alemàn, 2022
My Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
“I believe a lot of things, that doesn’t mean they’re true.”
Yawn. The most boring book on this list is Family Album, a collection of short stories by Ecuadorian writer, Gabriela Alemán. I enjoyed only two of the eight stories: Summer Vacation and Marriage. The rest were unmemorable.
The only reason I liked Summer Vacation is because it’s an interesting take on the famous legend of the Galapagos Island of Floreana. From 1930 to 1934, three different groups of Germans migrated to the island. It was all very strange since before they came the island was uninhabited. In the end, only one family remained. The others disappeared or died (possibly murdered). No one really knows what happened to them. In Family Album, Alemán provides her own explanation.
However, most of the other stories are boring. One is about a man obsessed with a basketball game that takes place in 1967 between Ecuador and the United States. Another imagines John Bobbitt (the guy whose penis was cut off by his wife, Lorena Bobbitt – I guess Lorena is from Ecuador) as an expat in Ecuador.
Overall, I’d pass on Family Album. Even writing this review bored me to death.
By Maria Fernanda Ampuero, 2020
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“Narcisa used to say that we should be more afraid of the living than the dead, but we didn’t believe her because in all the horror movies we saw, we were most afraid of the dead, the ones that had returned from beyond, the possessed.”
If you’re going to read Cockfight, you’ll want to read it AFTER visiting Ecuador and not BEFORE or DURING, or else you might not want to visit.
Named one of the 10 best fiction books of 2018 by the New York Times Spanish edition, the book is a collection of twelve dark and bleak stories centering around violence and cruelty toward women—rape, torture, kidnappings, etc.
The first story, Auction, is a masterpiece. It involves a taxi kidnapping. The prose, the pacing, the characters, and the plot are PERFECT. Taxi kidnappings are a thing in Ecuador, and I was warned many times to make sure I only took official taxis.
During my first week in Quito, I even met a woman whose friend was kidnapped by his taxi driver the night before. For the next six weeks in Ecuador, I avoided taking them. Eventually, I forgot about the stories and took taxis. But then after reading Ampuero’s first story, I was back to avoiding taxis.
The rest of the stories in this collection are just as raw and intense as the first one but they aren’t as well-written, paced, and developed. I found them to be too violent and cruel for me. However, maybe I’m not the most reliable reviewer. I read them while recovering from knee surgery and perhaps they were not the right thing to read while in pain.
If you are looking for cheery, happy, tales of beautiful and kind people, don’t bother with Cockfight. Actually, read the free sample of the brilliant first story but don’t bother with the rest of them.
16. Human Sacrifices
By Maria Fernanda Ampuero, 2023
In Human Sacrifices, María Fernandez Ampuero comes up with more ways to torture women. The book is another dark and depressing collection of short stories centering around violence, cruelty, and the exploitation of women and children.
I have only had a chance to read the first story, and it’s just as creepy and cruel as the stories in Cockfight. It’s about an undocumented woman from Ecuador who accepts a high-paying job from a strange guy in some remote area of the United States. I found myself immersed in the story enough that I could feel the anxiety and tension that the poor woman was feeling as she made her way to the man’s house.
If that’s not your cup of tea and you want something with hope and happiness, skip these stories.
The book is described on Good Reads as “tropical gothic.” I’ve read some books set in the Philippines that have been described as this type of genre. It’s my understanding that it means scary stories mixed with some supernatural elements that are set in exotic locations.
I have Human Sacrifices on hold at my local library, so when it’s finally ready for me to borrow, I’ll update this review.
By Mónica Ojeda; Sara Booker (Translator), 2018
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“But sometimes I think a story, even if it’s made up, can say things that are true. In my opinion, that’s what sets the best horror stories apart from the worst: they achieve a true form of fear.”
I hated the first chapter of Jawbone. It was pretentious, horribly written, and weird. Almost gave up on it right away.
But I read on, and in the second and third chapters, I started to really get into the story.
Jawbone is an Ecuadorian version of the movie, Mean Girls but ten times more twisted and bizarre. Set at an elite Catholic all-girls school in Guayaquil, the story has two main characters. Fernanda is the sidekick to the master manipulator and psychopath, Anne. They are part of a group of six girls that spend their afternoons hanging out in an abandoned building telling scary stories, daring each other to do violent things to each other, and worshipping a White Ghost.
The other main character is their teacher, Miss Clara. She suffers from every kind of psychological disorder you can think of—anxiety, panic, and social. A basket case, partly due to a traumatic event at her previous school and partly due to a psychopathic mother.
Right from the beginning you learn that Miss Clara has kidnapped Fernanda. But Mónica Ojeda doesn’t tell you why. That’s the mystery. Instead, she hides this information from you and only bit by bit reveals it as the story progresses. In this way, she PERFECTLY builds up the terror and suspense.
Jawbone does have some flaws. The final connection to what pushed Miss Clara over the edge is clumsily skipped over at the end. There’s a lack of dialogue and lots of long paragraphs of monologues going on in someone’s mind, but this did not bother me.
Not everyone is going to like this story. Frankly, it’s quite bizarre. There’s lots of weird sex, Mommy-Dearest relationships, and mean people.
But Jawbone is also a fun, fun, fun read!
18. The Queen of Water
By Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango, 2011
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Where do you want to live? Do you want to live free and poor and covered in flea welts? Or enslaved, with your own clean room and a shower with hot water? Who are you, Virginia? Who are you, really?”
I hope you’re still here because…
I’m finally getting to the star of this collection of Ecuador books.
If you want to read only one book set in Ecuador BEFORE or even AFTER your trip or maybe you’re not even planning a visit to the country, make it The Queen of Water.
But a warning:
The book will break your heart into a million pieces over and over again.
The Queen of Water has two authors. The story is based on the life story of Maria Virginia Farinango. Laura Resau is a professional writer of children’s books set in Ecuador.
The main character is Virginia, an indigenous girl from the Sierra part of Ecuador. At six or seven (her family never celebrates birthdays so she never knows her age) she is sent or sold to a family living in a small town far from her family.
Basically, she is a slave.
She’s never paid, locked inside the apartment all day, beaten daily by her master, made to sleep on the floor, and called every derogatory name Ecuadorians can think of for Indians. The family repeatedly tells her that she is their servant for life.
You might be thinking that the book takes place in the 1700s or 1800s. Nope. It’s as recent as the 1980s!
The writing is beautiful and emotionally powerful. Resau knows how to capture the feelings and thoughts of Virginia so well that you feel like you’re there in the room with her as she’s getting slapped by Doctorita or playing with Jaimito. It’s hard not to get emotionally attached to Virginia and want her to succeed.
The Queen of Water is a hard-to-put-down book that will give you some insight into the exploitation of the indigenous people of Ecuador and the tense relationship between them and the mestizos.
19. The Villagers (Huasipungo)
By Jorge Icaza; Bernard Dulsey (Translator), 1934
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Of course. You understand that the lands without the Indians are worth nothing.”
“And what Indians! All yours, all serfs, very meek. You can do what you like with those people.”
The second book on this list that focuses on the exploitation of the indigenous people is the Ecuadorian classic, Huasipungo, which is the Kichwa word for “village” or “villagers.” Jorge Icaza wrote the original version in 1934 and then revised it in the 1950s and 60s. Bernard Dulsey based his translation on one of the later versions.
Set on a hacienda in the Andes Mountains, the story centers around the life of Andres Chiliquinga, an Indian who’s basically owned by the nearly bankrupt landowner, Don Alfonso.
In order to squeeze as much profit out of his land in order to pay off his debts, Don Alfonso steals the Indian’s village, refuses to pay them, humiliates them, causes the death of their children, starves them, rapes the women, tortures the men, and forces them to work in dangerous and inhumane conditions. He does all of this with no remorse and with the backing of the Catholic Church and the government and military of Ecuador.
The other part of the story is the one I was most interested in reading—the reaction of the Indians to all this abuse and exploitation. It’s rare that the indigenous have a voice in literature.
Huasipungo is the most hopeless book I’ve read on Ecuador. You know that the abuse and enslavement have gone on for centuries before the story and will go on for decades more, and the abusers and enslavers will never be punished.
I did find the book poorly written—the characters are so one-dimensional and full of cliches that the abuse of the Indians comes off as exaggerated. I’m not saying the abuse Icaza depicts in the book didn’t happen. From reading Portrait of a Nation and other books, it probably did.
Eventually, I ignored the bad prose and simply got caught up in the story—cheering on the Indians to stand up to and take revenge on Don Alfonso, the sheriff, and the priest. Read The Villagers to find out if they did!
20. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
By Luis Sepùlvida; Peter Bush (Translator), 1988
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“It was the most important discovery of his whole life. He could read. He possessed the antidote to the deadly poison of old age. He could read. But he had nothing to read.”
Another beautifully written book set in Ecuador is The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. Written by Chilean author, Luis Sepúlveda, the book takes place in the Amazon in the 1950s and 60s.
The main character is Antonio Jose Bolivar, often called the “old man.”
The government is giving away free land in the Amazon to encourage people from the Sierras to settle there. Antonio and his wife take up the government’s offer. However, once Antonio and the rest of the people from the Andes arrive, the government breaks all its promises of assistance in settling down and just abandons them.
The couple soon realizes they aren’t equipped to deal with the hot and humid climate and the poor soil. His wife dies not long after arriving.
Antonio finds himself alone in the Amazon. However, he adapts and he makes friends with the Shuar. He learns from them how to survive and thrive in the jungle.
One day Antonio discovers that he can read, and even more amazing is that he realizes he also loves to read, but not just any kind of book. He only loves to read love stories. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love, love, love books about characters who also love books.
The rest of the story is about his village tracking down an ocelot that goes on a killing rampage. The ocelot, however, is just a metaphor for a larger theme about how a place and its people can be changed by outsiders and how outsiders can be changed by a place and its people.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is an EXCELLENT book to read AFTER reading The Law of the Jungle. It gives you a deeper understanding of how the Amazon has changed over the years as these outsiders move in.
The book is short—only 130 pages long—and Sepúlveda is an amazing writer—the words have a nice flow so that you can easily finish it in a few hours.
21. Everything Here is Beautiful
Mira T Lee, 2018
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Later, I would be told I had a twenty percent chance of maintaining a full-time job, a twenty-five percent chance of living independently, a forty percent chance of attempting suicide, a ten percent chance of succeeding. I was twenty-six years old.”
I contemplated not including Everything Here is Beautiful on this list of books on Ecuador. It only partly takes place in Ecuador. But in the end, I’m leaving it on because it is such a wonderful and powerful story about family bonds and the impact of mental illness. The Ecuador section is the most suspenseful and heartbreaking part of the book.
Miranda and Lucia are two Chinese-American sisters. Lucia is the older and more responsible sister. Miranda is the headstrong and unpredictable one. Then while in her 20s, Miranda starts to hear voices. She’s got schizophrenia. Lucia grapples with protecting Miranda, finding a cure for her illness, but also trying to have a life of her own.
Then Miranda meets Manny, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador living in New York City. They fall in love, marry, and have a child together. Miranda with her mental illness moves with Manny and their daughter to his village in the mountains outside of Cuenca. Eventually, her schizophrenia catches up with her and she’s got to deal with it while living in a foreign country.
I can’t praise this book highly enough—the writing, the characters, the storyline, and the setting are all PERFECTLY executed. The Ecuador section is fabulous–having a mental illness is hard enough, but to have it while in another country adds to the tension of the story.
22. The Amnesia Clinic
By James Scudamore, 2007
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to let people believe what they want to believe.”
The last book I read on this list is The Amnesia Clinic, by James Scudamore. It also happens to be one of my FAVORITE books about Ecuador. I read it AFTER my trip to Ecuador, and it was one of the BEST books to help me relive my time there.
Two 15-year-old boys at the Quito International School, Anti (British) and Fabian (Ecuadorian) are best friends but complete opposites. Anti is reserved and awkward while Fabian is charismatic and headstrong. Anti spends as much time as he can with Fabian and his eccentric and cool uncle, Suarez, who infuses the boys with a love of storytelling. Soon they are telling each other their own stories, leading to a relationship based on a blurred line between truth and fiction. The two boys embark on an adventure across Ecuador in search of a clinic for amnesiacs that might not exist.
The beginning is a fast, easy, and fun read. I loved following Anti and Fabian around Quito and I found myself just as enamored with Uncle Suarez as they were. Then the book takes a more serious turn than what I expected.
A nice bonus for history nerds is that the story takes place during the Ecuador-Peru border war in 1995.
The Amnesia Clinic is one of the three best novels that you should add to your Ecuador reading list.
Ecuador Books: Galapagos Novels
If you want books set in the Galapagos, here are three interesting novels that I highly recommend. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut is for those who love satire. Wish You Were Here is for those of you who want a romance mixed with adventure. Finally, for those who like historical fiction, Enchanted Island will take you back to the Galapagos of the 1930s and 1940s.
By Kurt Vonnegut, 1984
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“It pains me even now, even a million years later, to write about such human misbehavior.
A million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race. That’s all I can say.”
The most famous English-language book set in the Galápagos (and simply called Galápagos) is by the famous satirical writer, Kurt Vonnegut.
I was a big fan of Vonnegut when I was in my 20s, and I thought I had read all his books. However, when I picked up Galápagos while traveling in the Galapagos, nothing on its pages seemed familiar. So maybe I hadn’t read it before.
I’m glad I had the chance to read it while cruising around the islands. It’s a great book—great writing, great characters, and interesting plot. Very funny. And very philosophical.
Set in 1986 during a global financial crisis that has wiped out the economies of many countries including Ecuador, the cruise of the century is about to take off from Guayaquil to the Galapagos. Unfortunately, it’s been canceled due to a plague that is about to wipe out the human race. Most people have gotten the message and stayed home except for a small group of passengers waiting at a hotel in Guayaquil.
The boat with this handful of diverse misfits does manage to leave the port of mainland Ecuador and land on one of the Galapagos islands. They eventually become the only remaining human beings left on Earth. In keeping with Darwin’s theory of evolution, these last humans begin to adapt and evolve.
There are many themes surrounding all of Vonnegut’s books. One common theme in the Galápagos is that human beings have evolved badly because their brains are too big. They lie, cheat, steal, etc.
Definitely, a fun book to pack with you on your trip to the Galapagos.
24. Wish You Were Here
By Jodi Picoult, 2021
My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow—I realize that viscerally now—but that doesn’t keep us from feeling cheated when it’s yanked away.”
Probably the most fun and relevant Ecuador book on this list is Wish You Were Here. Written by the very popular American writer Jodi Picoult, the book takes place in the Galapagos during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Diana O’Toole is a successful New Yorker, engaged to be married to a doctor. It’s 2020 and Diana and her fiancé are about to leave for vacation in the Galapagos. However, one little inconvenience gets in the way. There’s a virus coming out of China that’s about to hit New York City, and Diana’s boyfriend needs to stay. Diana, though, leaves on her vacation to the Galapagos alone. When she arrives on Santa Cruz Island, the world shuts down and instead of getting on a plane back to mainland Ecuador, Diana gets on a ferry to Isla Isabela, where she finds no working ATMs, no open hotels, no food, and no way back to the mainland. It’s a global pandemic and Diana is stuck in the Galapagos.
Wish Your Were Here is indeed a book you’ll want to read while you’re on Isla Isabela because many of the places that the characters visit are ones that you will too. My friend read it BEFORE her trip so it’s also a great book to read beforehand.
There’s a twist toward the end that at first I didn’t like, but a few days after I let the ending sink in, the book’s ending and theme grew on me.
25. Enchanted Islands
By Alison Amend, 2016
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Friendship between women is complicated. We can be kind to the world, but where other women are concerned, we often show our basest selves. We who have grown up in an age such as mine—where women start to wear to trousers and leave off girdles, where we can have careers and be perfectly productive members of society without marrying or bearing children—have no excuse for our lack of sorority.”
Enchanted Islands is the final book on the Galapagos Islands. However, this one is based on a real person, Frances Conway, and her husband, Ainslee Conway, who were sent by the U.S. military on a secret mission to the Galapagos Islands,
The novel starts out in the late 1800s when Franny is a child of poor Jewish immigrants living in Duluth, Minnesota. At 15, she runs away with her best friend, Rosalee, but a year later, her friend betrays her and Franny is all alone.
Decades later, Franny is a 50-year-old spinster living in San Francisco and working for the Office of Naval Intelligence. She’s introduced to Ainslee Conway, a handsome and single naval intelligence officer. Franny agrees to marry Ainslee and carry out a secret mission to the Galapagos to find out what the Germans are doing there. However, both husband and wife have their own secrets that they are hiding from each other.
Interesting story about the role the Galapagos played during World War II. The characters are well-developed.
However, I don’t think the author successfully captures the feel of the islands. There’s little mention of the tame and naïve animals or the unbearable heat of the islands. Franny and Ainslee could be on any old island anywhere in the world.
Some of you might also find the structure of the book to be disjointed. The book does an abrupt and odd jump in its storyline at the mid-point from interesting, smart, curious, and ambitious Franny in her 20s to dull, passive, uninspiring Franny in her 50s. I suppose the point is to show us how life can pass us by if we remain passive.
Overall, Enchanted Islands is to read before, during, or after your trip to the Galapagos.
So those are the 25 most popular books on Ecuador!
Have you read any of them?
Let me know what you think of the ones you read. Do you agree or disagree with my opinion?
Which books have sparked your wanderlust and you plan to read?
I’d love to hear from you!
If you want travel info on Ecuador, check out my Ecuador Travel Guide–based on my 6 months of traveling and working online in the country.
For those of you who just want to travel around the world by book, check out more books here!
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