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 ECUADOR COUNTRY INFORMATION

Ecuador is a gallery of stunning landscapes. From snow-capped, volcanic mountains and long stretches of unspoiled coastline to Amazon rainforests and the bleak splendor of the Galapagos Islands, the country offers the visitor a breathtaking spectrum of natural wonders. To give you an idea of its diversity, of the world's 32 denominated "Life zones", 26 are found here, in a country the size of Nevada, or slightly larger than the United Kingdom.

Including the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador consists of four contrasting regions, each one distinctly different from the others. The Galapagos are arid, volcanic outcrops patterned with moon-like lava flows and twisted rock formations. No soft Pacific palms fringe their rocky shores. Plants and creatures here that have adapted to these harsh conditions are tough and hardy - thick-skinned iguanas, giant armor-plated tortoises, blubber-bound sea lions, spiny acacia, spiky cactuses, saltbush and scalesia.

The coastline and the coastal plain, simply called La Costa, present a less fierce face - marshland, mangrove swamps [
or what is left of them after the invasion of shrimp farms], creeks, estuaries and long stretches of empty beaches swathed with palm trees. The hot and humid coastal plains were thickly forested before man arrived with his machete to create banana, cacao, coffee, sugar cane and rice plantations. As these plantations encroached further upon the forest, Ecuador became a full-fledged banana republic and still ranks among the world's leading exporters.

Upwards and eastwards, the flanks of the Andes are clothed in mists and residual areas of thick cloud forests threaded with silvery waterfalls. In the highland valleys, the Sierra, the face of the landscape takes a more worn and hewn look. Tilled and re-tilled for centuries before the Incas and the Spanish came along, the ancient, geometric fields, terraced on the steeper slopes, transform the valleys into tapestries woven in pastel shades of brown and green. Splashes of deep red on the ponchos of Indian women herding sheep provide a vivid color contrast, while lamas grazing by high mountain lakes embellish the pastoral scenes. Above the valleys tower snow-white peaks, stern and dangerous, the world's tallest active volcanoes.

Over the other side of the mountains, the eastern slopes of the Andes stretch towards the great Amazon basin, the world's largest rainforest. The Ecuadorians call this vast area of their country El Oriente, The East. The discovery of oil in the Oriente in the 1970s has led to the building of new roads, destruction and contamination of huge tracts of virgin forest and increasing numbers of "colonists," as well as new diseases, cultural decimation and anger within the local indigenous populations. Rivers flowing down the Andes and through their tribal lands eventually link up with the mighty Amazon River on its 3,200-km [
2,000-mile] journey across Brazil and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Last Updated 24th July 2006 (DLW)

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