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What is a Cantón and Parroquia in Ecuador?

Posted in: Ecuador Facts, Living in Ecuador

So, what is a canton and a parroquia in Ecuador? If you have been reading online about Ecuador, you have seen that the areas and cities are divided into cantóns and parroquias.


Guide to Ecuador’s Cantóns and Parroquias

Generally speaking, the political division of where you are looking to live (or visit) doesn’t really matter. Determining which parroquia or canton you are going to live in is an afterthought.

But because you are going to make Ecuador your home, it’s worth learning about how it is structured. Here are the basics:

What is a Cantón?

The term Cantón was explained to me as the equivalent of county in Canada or the States. The term is derived from the French word canton meaning corner or district.

In Canadian French, a canton refers to a township (also a Canadian term) which describes a subdivision of a county. (Source: Wikipedia)

From what I’ve seen, every town and area in a province in Ecuador is assigned to a cantón and (at least in the rural areas) the people are proud of which canton they belong to. They generally go to the capital town of their canton to do their trámites (legal and government paperwork).

In each canton, there is a mayor (alcalde) and a municipal council (concejo municipal) responsible for the day to day operations. The mayor and his council belong to the national political parties. They are voted in during the general election.

Ecuador’s 221 Cantons

Ecuador has 221 cantons – including three that don’t belong to any province.

According to some sources, this means that the inhabitants receive double services in some places and none in others. It makes it hard to tell others where you are from – because technically you aren’t from any province.

These are the three unassigned cantons in Ecuador:

  1. Las Golondrinas: Located between Esmeraldas and Imbabura provinces between the Agua Clara y Guayllabamba rivers. Over 5,000 inhabitants.
  2. Manga del Cura: Located between the provinces of Guayas, Manabí, Santo Domingo y Los Ríos. It covers 600 km² with more than 20,000  inhabitants (some sources put it over 60,000). Because all four provinces claim this territory, resolving this issue is complicated. Some references note that Santo Domingo doesn’t claim it.
  3. El Piedrero: Located between Guayas and Cañar, at the foot of the Andes. Has over 6,000 inhabitants.

In 2010 these territories had more than 32,000 inhabitants with a land area of 1,419  km².

What is a Parroquia?

A parroquia is a subdivision of a canton. In English it is known as: parish and can mean precinct or territory. This word is used in Ecuador, Venezuela, Andorra and in parts of Spain.

These parishes are classified as either urban or rural. Cuenca, for example, has 15 urban and 21 rural parishes.

There are more than 1,500 parroquias in Ecuador.

Ecuador’s Administrative Divisions

So here is the political structure in Ecuador.

  • Province (24)
  • Cantón (221)
  • Parroquia (1500+)

How is this actually used? If you live in Cuenca on Avenida Ordoñez Lasso (like many expats) you would live: in the parroquia San Sebastián, canton Cuenca, province of Azuay.

Cuenca is a city and a canton (county). The canton of Cuenca includes a total of 36 parroquias and the city just the 15 urban ones. Read all about Cuenca’s Parroquias.

Although Cuenca has 15 urban parroquias, it is often asked: “What sector do you live in?” instead of “What parroquia do you live in?”.

People often refer to a landmark instead of a political division. Many real estate listings state: sector el tiempo (near the El Tiempo newspaper) or sector estadio (near the stadium). This is helpful when searching for rentals and purchases in Ecuador.

How Large is a Cantón and Parroquia?

According to an article in El Universo the current guidelines are: “A canton (county) must have at least 50 000 inhabitants and in its seat/capital about 10 000. But a parish should have a total of 10,000 and 2,000 at its head, according to current regulations.”

From what I have seen, this guideline isn’t followed very strictly – unless it has recently changed. There are cantons with just 3000 inhabitants total.

Learn more about cities in Ecuador with this huge guide.

In future posts, I’ll be covering the breakdown of specific cantons and parroquias.

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Travel.

4 comments… add one
  • Frank Varela Dec 13, 2013, 5:44 pm

    Bryan and Dena, I recently discovered your website and recognized tou as being on a House Hunters International episode featuring your appartment hunting in Cuenca. I’m glad to see you continue to live there and are doing so well. My wife and I have been in Cuenca 3 times and are planning to retire there. I’ll check back often on your website to learn more about that beautiful city. It would be great to meet you in person when we finally make it over there to stay. Keep doing such a great job of informing the world about Cuenca.

  • Jon Rice Dec 6, 2013, 2:17 pm

    Is there a map on line that I could download that shows the Parroquias for Cuenca? It would be helpful when looking for housing.

  • Walter Friese Dec 1, 2013, 7:23 am

    Very good info. Thanks for researching and sharing.

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