information about country.
"Ecuador, so tiny on the map of the world, has always possessed the grandeur of a great country to those who know her well."
- Albert B. Franklin,
Ecuador: Portrait of a People
Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru,
is the smallest of the Andean nations, covering an area no bigger than Nevada. For all its diminutive size, however, the country is packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery, taking in steaming tropical rainforests, windswept highlands, ice-capped volcanoes and palm-fringed beaches, all within easy reach of the capital, Quito. It's a land of bold contours and heightened colours, where you can find yourself beneath a canopy of dripping vegetation amongst clouds of neon-coloured butterflies one day, and in a highland market, mixing with scarlet-ponchoed
the next. It's also a country of astounding biodiversity, boasting 1600 species of bird (more per area than any other South American country), 4500 species of butterfly and over 3500 species of orchid, to cite just a few examples. Add to this the country's stunning colonial architecture and diverse indigenous groups, and it becomes clear why Ecuador is regarded by many as a sort of South America in miniature, offering a pocket-sized microcosm of almost everything travellers hope to find on this bewitching continent. As if more were called for, its attractions are triumphantly capped off by the GalA?pagos Islands, whose extraordinary wildlife has gone down in history for its pivotal role in shaping Charles Darwin's theories on evolution.
Geographically, Ecuador's mainland divides neatly into three distinct regions running the length of the country in parallel strips. In the middle is the
, formed by the eastern and western chains of the Andes that surge abruptly into the clouds from the lowlands either side. Punctuated by over thirty volcanoes, the two chains are joined by a series of high plateaux at around 2800m above sea level, separated by gentle transverse ridges, or
("knots" of hills). This is the agricultural and indigenous heartland of Ecuador, a region of patchwork fields crawling up the mountainsides, of stately haciendas and dozens of remote communities. The sierra is also home to many of the country's oldest and most important cities, including Quito. East of the sierra is the
, a large, sparsely populated area extending into the upper Amazon basin, much of it covered by dense tropical rainforest - an exhilarating, exotic region, though under increasing threat from oil-production and colonization. West of the sierra, the
is formed by a fertile alluvial plain, used for growing tropical crops such as bananas, sugar, coffee and cacao, and bordered on its Pacific seaboard by a string of beaches, mangrove swamps, shrimp farms and ports. Almost a thousand kilometres of ocean separate the coastline from the
archipelago, annexed by Ecuador in 1832.
All this provides a home to some fourteen million people, the majority of whom live on the coast and in the sierra. They are descendants, for the most part, of the various
that first inhabited Ecuador's territory, of the
who colonized these lands in the late fifteenth century, of the
who conquered the Inca empire in the 1530s and of the
brought by the Spanish colonists. Although the mixing of blood over many centuries has resulted in a largely
(mixed) population, the indigenous component remains very strong, particularly among the Quichua-speaking communities of the rural sierra, and the various ethnic groups of the Oriente such as the Shuar, the Achuar, the Huaorani and Secoya, while on the north coast there's a significant black population. As in many parts of Latin America,
social and economic divisions
and an elite class of whites remain deeply entrenched, exacerbated here by a slew of recent economic and political crises. And yet, even as poverty and unemployment increase, as their national currency is lost to the US dollar and their political leaders continually fail to tackle the country's problems, the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians remain resilient, remarkably cheerful, and extremely courteous and welcoming towards visitors.
More travel guides:
Where to go: Some highlights
Maps and information
Opening hours, public holidays and festivals
Crafts and markets
National parks and protected areas
Metric equivalent weights and measures
Mainland geography and wildlife
Red tape and visas
Costs, money and banks
Communications, post and phones
Crime and personal safety
Work, volunteering and study
Eating and drinking
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