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Ecuador
is a developing country. Travelers to the capital city of Quito may require some
time to adjust to the altitude (close to 10,000 feet), which can adversely
affect blood pressure, digestion and energy level. Tourist facilities are
adequate, but vary in quality. Introduction Epithet after epithet was found too
weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the
sensations of delight which the mind experiences.— Charles Darwin If an
argumentative group of travelers sat down to design a shared destination, they
would be hard put to come up with a place that would best Ecuador. Packed like a
knee-cap between Peru and Colombia, Ecuador contains within its borders an
improbable variety of landscape and culture. For the mountaineer, it is bisected
by an epic stretch of the northern Andes. For the jungle explorer, there is a
biological mother lode within the Amazonian Oriente. The sea-minded are rewarded
with miles of Pacific coastline, to say nothing of the living wonders of the
Galapagos Islands. Not only are these regions highly defined, but excluding
Galapagos they are also wonderfully contiguous. The entire country is about the
size of Washington state, and it is home to some of the world’s most
extraordinary national parks. In a matter of two hundred miles, the traveler can
penetrate all of the mainland’s defining regions–the coastal lowlands in the
West, the volcanic central highlands, and the rainforests of the East, or
Oriente. Ecuador’s climate is equally generous to the traveler. Embracing the
Pacific, Ecuador rests squarely on the equator (hence its name). Here, seasons
are defined more by rainfall than temperature. A warm rainy season lasts from
January to April, and May through December is characterized by a cooler, drier
period that is ideally timed for a summer trip. History ; Culture Ecuador’s
culture and history mirrors the diversity of its landscape. Like much of South
America, Ecuadorian culture blends the influences of Spanish colonialism with
the resilient traditions of pre-Columbian peoples. Archaeologists trace the
first inhabitants as far back as 10,000 BC, when hunters and gatherers
established settlements on the southern coast and in the central highlands. By
3,200 BC three distinct agricultural-based civilizations had emerged, producing
some of the hemisphere’s oldest known pottery. They developed trade routes with
nearby Peru, Brazil, and Amazonian tribes. Culture continued to thrive and
diversify, and by 500 BC large cities had been established along the coast.

Their inhabitants had sophisticated metalworking and navigational skills and
they traded with Mexico’s Maya. In 1460 AD, when the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui
invaded from the south, three major tribes in Ecuador were powerful enough to
give him a fight: the Canari, the Quitu, and the Caras. The Inca were a dynamic,
rapidly advancing society. They originated in a pocket of Peru, but established
a vast empire within a century. It dominated Peru and extended as far as Bolivia
and central Chile. The Inca constructed massive, monumental cities. To
communicate across their empire they laid wide, stone-paved highways thousands
of kilometers long and sent chains of messengers along them. These mailmen
passed each other records of the empire’s status, which were coded in system of
knots along a rope. A winded runner could even rest in the shade of trees
planted along both sides of the road. Remarkably, the Canari, Quitu, and Caras
were able to hold back Tupac-Yupanqui, though they proved less successful
against his son, Huayna Capac. After conquering Ecuador, Huayna Capac
indoctrinated the tribes to Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still
widely spoken in Ecuador. In celebration of his victory, Huayna Capac ordered a
great city to be built at Tomebamba, near Cuenca. Its size and influence rivaled
the capital of Cuzco in Peru–a rivalry that would mature with posterity. When
he died in 1526, Huayna Capac divided the empire between his two sons, Atahualpa
and Huascar. Atahualpa ruled the northern reaches from Tombebamba, while Huascar
held court over the south from Cuzco. The split inheritance was an
unconventional and fateful move, as the first Spaniards arrived in the same
year. On the eve of Pizarro’s expedition into the empire, the brothers entered
into a civil war for complete control. Francisco Pizarro landed in Ecuador in
1532, accompanied by 180 fully armed men and an equally strong lust for gold.

Several years earlier, Pizarro had made a peaceful visit to the coast, where he
heard rumors of inland cities of incredible wealth. This time, he intended to
conquer the Incas just as Hernando Cortez had crushed Mexico’s Aztecs–and he
couldn’t have picked a better time. Atahualpa had only recently won the war
against his brother when Pizarro arrived, and the empire was still unstable.

Pizarro ambushed the ruler, forced him to collect an enormous ransom, and then
executed him. Although the Incas mounted considerable resistance to Pizarro,
they were soon broken. Spanish governors ruled Ecuador for nearly 300 years,
first from Lima, Peru, then later from the viceroyalty of Colombia. The Spanish
introduced Roman Catholicism, colonial architecture, and today’s national
language. Independence was won in 1822, when the famed South American liberator
Simon Bolivar defeated a Spanish army at the Battle of Pichincha. Bolivar united
Ecuador with Colombia and Venezuela, forming the state of Gran Colombia. His
plan was to eventually unite all of South America as a constitutional republic,
and one can only wonder what such a nation would have been like if his dream had
been realized. After eight years, however, local interests sparked Ecuador to
secede from the union. Colombia and Venezuela soon split. Ecuador’s modern
history has had its struggles. A long-standing, internal dispute between the
conservative city of Quito and the liberal Guayaquil has at times boiled over
into violence. Near the turn of the century, leaders on both sides were
assassinated, and military dictators have ruled the country for most of its
recent history. Ecuador returned to democracy in 1979, however, and free
elections have continued since. A border dispute with Peru exists to this day,
and some skirmishes recently flared in the Amazon, though fighting has subsided
for the time being. Exploration Geographically, Ecuador can be divided into
three primary regions: the Coastal Lowlands, the Central Highlands, and the
Eastern Rainforest Basin. The Coastal Lowlands The inhabitants of the coastal
lowlands, especially those of Guayaquil, have long considered themselves a breed
apart. Though travelers are greeted warmly, the coastal regions were so
resistant to the Spanish that African slaves had to be brought in to provide a
labor base to work the rich farmland. Tied to this independent sentiment is a
land of roaming beaches, luxuriant plains, and dense mangrove forests. Some of
the world’s best preserved mangrove forests can be found along the northern
coast. A ride on a pongu boat through the dark, hidden world of the mangrove
tree enlightens the visitor to one of the most ecologically important
environments in Ecuador. More than beautifully intricate, the meshy roots of the
mangrove offer protection to the spawn of oceanic fish, which come to the
forests to breed. In the branches above, colorful toucans and a host of other
birds provide dizzying acoustics. Guayaquil Located at the mouth of the Guayas
River, this coastal city has always been the largest and most liberal-minded in
Ecuador. Its fiercely independent and progressive populace has at times rebelled
against the government in Quito. Today, it is a city of 2 million, and some
historians explain that the reason Guayaquil is not the nation’s capital is
because the Spanish found Quito easier to control. Guayaquil’s history of
trading dates back thousands of years, and its markets are still a big
attraction. People come from all over Ecuador to hawk their goods here, and
bargains abound. The Central Highlands The most dramatic geographical feature of
Ecuador is its central highlands. Here, a soaring stretch of the Andes splits
into two local ranges, demarcating a magnificent central valley. The German
explorer Humbolt aptly dubbed this valley the Avenue of the Volcanoes, for along
it range most of Ecuador’s 51 volcanic peaks, 21 of which are presently active.

Many wear snowy crowns all year round. The highest peak is Chimborazo, rising
6,310 meters. At the northern end of the valley is Ecuador’s capital city,
Quito. Quito At 2,850 meters (9,360 ft), Quito is the second highest capital in
the world. It is also one of South America’s most entrancing cities, possessing
a balmy climate, a wealth of fine Spanish colonial architecture, and a
magnificent setting at the base of Pichincha volcano. Quito was a major
stronghold of the Inca, defended by the general Ruminahui for two years after
the Spanish arrived. Realizing that the Spanish would eventually take the city,
Ruminahui destroyed it himself and fled. The chagrined Spanish quickly rebuilt
upon the site, and today it has a population of just over a million. Quito has
been the seat of Ecuadorian government since 1830 and a bastion of conservatism
throughout Ecuador’s modern history. The old city center harbors many of the
country’s museums as well as markets and plenty of colonial churches and plazas.

An infamous and periodically violent rivalry exists between Quito and the
coastal city of Guayaquil. Cotopaxi National Park It is hard to miss this park’s
main attraction, even from twenty miles away. At 19,460 feet (5897 meters),
Mount Cotopaxi is the world’s second highest active volcano. Worshipped by
locals for its remarkable symmetry, the mountain has been known to reward
adoration with destruction. Since 1534, when the invading Spanish were
dumbstruck by an eruption, the Cotopaxi has erupted nine times, most recently in
1942. In 1887, mud slides blasted down its slopes after an eruption sparked
glacial melting, annihilating several nearby cities. For climbers, as for local
residents, the mountain is a pilgrim’s destination. It was first scaled in 1872
by Wilhelm Ross, a German, and Colombian Angel Escobar. A later ascent from the
North by the British Edward Whymper established the most popular route to the
crater. Cotopaxi lies about 40 miles south of Quito. Chimborazo National Park
Located about 100 miles south of Quito, this park is the site of a uniquely
insensible geographical marvel–the misty peak of Mount Chimborazo, which marks
the farthest point from the center of the Earth. The distinction is caused by
planetary bulging at the equator. The peak of this monstrous volcano is
Ecuador’s highest point at 20,823 feet. Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve There are more
species of birds in the Amazon than anywhere else on the planet. One-third of
those species roost here, making Cuyabeno’s 85,000 acres the most diverse avian
sanctuary on the planet. A roam along the well-developed trails blesses hikers
in this park with an unforgettable experience. In the trees above, macaws,
toucans and endless breeds of other birds flash staggering colors while the air
pulsates with their songs and calls. Bring binoculars, as well as a flashlight
to view the nocturnal species. The Oriente Along the eastern slope of the Andes
is found one of the world’s richest and most accessible rainforest regions, an
area that vibrates with life. An astounding one-third of all the Amazon’s bird
species can be found here, as well as 10 percent of the world’s tree species.

Massive flows of water from the Andes collect in the Napo and Aguarico river
basins, creating the foundation for the Oriente’s teeming biodiversity. It
typically rains at least once a day, and rubber boots are highly recommendable.

The Napo is one of the Amazon River’s principal tributaries, and included in its
fauna are sloths, caymans, jaguars, monkeys, tapirs, pink dolphins, and over
1,000 species of birds. Cayamba-Coco Ecological Reserve Located in the Oriente,
Cayamba-Coco is Ecuador’s largest national park. It is, quite simply, a gigantic
swath of life bursting off the face of the Earth. Ten million acres of
rainforest and cloud forest rest here in the shadows of the Andes. Daunted by
the task of developing the huge reserve for tourism, the government has done
very little with Cayamba-Coco. Tourists tend to stick to the beaten path and the
amenities it offers, making this park a truly wild experience. In addition to
the countless bird, mammal, and tree species found everywhere in the Oriente,
Cayamba-Coco also provides a good place to spot the rare Andean Vulture. The
Galapagos Islands The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a
satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists, and
has received the general character of its indigenous productions. Considering
the small size of these islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of
their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range. Seeing every height
crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava-streams still
distinct, we are led to believe that within a period, geologically recent, the
unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, in both space and time, we seem to be
brought somewhat nearer to that great fact–that mystery of mysteries–the first
appearance of new beings on this earth.—Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle
Location, Geography , Climate Ecuador’s most beloved and popular national park
lies in splendid isolation about 960 kilometers off the mainland. Made famous by
Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands are no less enthralling now than they were
a hundred years ago. Every year, thousands of curious visitors journey to the
remote islands to behold the wondrously variegated wildlife that inspired The
Origin of Species. Relatively young, the Galapagos sprouted out of the Pacific
from a suboceanic lava vent on the ocean floor. This same process created the
Hawaiian Islands, and it continues today in both island groups. In the
Galapagos, the vent is gradually creeping east with the Nazca plate, forming
more islands as it moves. There are currently sixty named islands, the
principals being Fernandina, Isabela, Baltra, James, Santa Cruz and San
Cristobal. The climate in the islands is generally mild and comfortable. From
June to December, the Humbolt current rises up from Antarctica, its cooler air
bringing in the rainy season. In January, the Humbolt’s withdrawal allows the
warmer equatorial current to move in, bringing with it a dry season that endures
through May. History In the fall of 1885, the Galapagos Islands’ most famous
visitor, Charles Darwin, arrived on the H.M.S. Beagle and began collecting and
observing the archipelago’s unique animal and plant life. At the time, Darwin
did not fully appreciate what he was seeing. Only after he returned home to
England did the scientist begin to formulate his theory of evolution. Though the
name Darwin is inseparable from the islands’ history, they were actually
discovered in 1535 by a Spanish bishop named Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who named
the island Galapagos after the impressive giant tortoises. Much of the same
flora and fauna that inspired Darwin’s The Origin of Species still thrives on
the Galapagos today. Appropriately, ninety-seven percent of the island is
national park. The legendary marine and land iguanas, the giant tortoises, and
seal colonies of the Galapagos are among nature’s most fantastic beings.

Visitors will gasp at these stunning animals, all of which are highly
approachable as their isolated evolution has not conditioned them to fear
humans. Iguanas and tortoises bask in the sun like bored movie stars, feet away
from the photo-snapping Homo Sapiens. Though their indifference may make the
animals seem humorously aloof, their very ignorance makes them vulnerable. A few
bad experiences with humans can alter their behavior irrevocably and turn them
reclusive. Respect their natural hospitality and keep your hands to yourself.

The Galapagos also offer some of the world’s best scuba diving. Dive boats that
tour the islands can be reserved on the mainland. Devil’s Crown, an atoll near
Floreana Island, is a submarine wonderland that shouldn’t be missed. The
shallows of this sunken volcano are burgeoning with an incredible myriad of
corals and fish. Giant tortoises hover over the reef like living balloons, and
sharks can sometimes be found, harmless and asleep on the sandy bottom. The
flight from Guayaquil takes about an hour and a half, and visitors can land on
either Baltra or San Cristobal. Upon reaching the Galapagos, the only way to
tour the islands is to do it the way Darwin did, by boat. Due to the
biologically sensitive nature of the islands, trips ashore must be taken in the
presence of a licensed guide. They come with the boat.


Geography

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