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Ecuador's culture is arguably as varied as its population and politics. Mainstream culture is a mix of Amerindian, Spanish, African, North American, and other Latin American influences. Its mixed heritage has ensured the existence of a wide array of arts and crafts, literature, architectural styles, and musical rhythms.

Art

Ecuadorean artists range from folk artisans working in a variety of forms, materials, and traditions to modern painters, sculptors, and ceramicists producing beautiful representational and abstract works.

Pre-Columbian artisans produced a wide range of pottery, paintings, sculpture, and gold and silver work. Intact pottery figurines dating from 3000 B.C. were discovered in the coastal village of Valdivia, and are still on display in several museums. After the arrival of the Spanish, art became increasingly influenced by Christianity. Paintings from colonial times can still be seen in many churches and museums. During the 17th and 18th centuries, painters of the Quito School began to combine Spanish and indigenous influences, but this movement fell out of favor following independence, when the focus shifted to formalist depictions of the great heroes of the revolution and the social elite.

Ecuador's most prominent modern artist is Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-99), whose powerful paintings -- often of just faces and hands -- evoke the lives, struggles, and suffering of the country's indigenous population.

Indigenous woven tapestries and clothing are still available for sale throughout the country, as are fine basketwork, leatherwork, woodcarving, ceramics, and jewelry. The most famous indigenous craft is the Panama hat, as much a must-buy in Ecuador as cigars are in Cuba.

Galleries, shops, and markets in Quito, Otavalo, Ibarra, Cuenca, and Guayaquil carry a wide range of locally produced art and crafts.

Achitecture

Ecuador's buildings offer a charming mix of old and new. Quito is perhaps the South American colonial capital that has changed the least since Spanish rule. The city's very impressive colonial churches were built in the baroque style, including La Compañía de Jesús, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the Iglesia de San Francisco. Several neoclassical and Beaux Arts buildings also survive from the beginnings of the republic.

Some of the most beautiful buildings in Ecuador are also found in Cuenca. La Inmaculada, the city's main cathedral, was completed in 1885 and houses a famous painting of the Virgin Mary, along with modern stained glass. The city's other cathedral, El Sagrario, was completed in 1557 and built over Inca ruins, some of which are still visible. Several other colonial and colonial-esque buildings dot the historic city, including the district Supreme Court.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, fire wiped out most of the old colonial buildings, and today modern high-rises coexist with tin-roof slums, though poverty is not laid as bare as in other urban areas of Latin America.

Though not as elaborate as the structures in Peru, some Inca ruins are still visible today in Ecuador. The principal Inca site here is Ingapirca, near Cuenca. The stone structure is small but well preserved. Other sites include Rumicucho, near Quito, La Tolita, near Esmeraldas, and Tomebamba, in Cuenca.

The Work of God or the Devil? -- As legend has it, a stonemason named Cantuña enlisted the Devil's help in constructing a chapel near the Iglesia de San Francisco in Quito in the late 18th century. When the Devil came to collect Cantuña's soul as payment for the work, thinking the project had been completed, the mason showed him that the church was in fact missing a single stone. The Devil returned to Hell angry and empty-handed.

A Man, a Plan, a Misnomer: The Panama Hat -- Don't let the name fool you: Panama hats are made in Ecuador. The tradition of millinery in Ecuador is long and proud. By the 16th century, the Incas had used the Carludovica palmata plant to create headwear, and the hats continued to have a place in Ecuador's culture after the Spanish conquest. In a famous painting of St. James the Great from the 17th century, made by an anonymous artist of the Cusco School, the mighty apostle is portrayed wearing a typical Ecuadorean hat while bounding on his horse, slaying Moors.

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