Ecuador in terms of landmass is one of the smaller nations in South America, dwarfed by neighbors such as Peru and Colombia. Yet in terms of ecological and geographic diversity, Ecuador is remarkably abundant in this aspect. From the humid and rainy Oriente (Amazon) that makes up a sizeable part of the country to the dry and volcanic Galapagos Islands, Ecuador encompasses a huge variety of landscapes and animal species.
Part of my reason for joining Peace Corps Ecuador was that I wanted to witness the great diversity that Ecuador had to offer especially because of my interest in biology ever since I was young. Ecuador is one of the best places for this given its wide range of species and relatively small size ( slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Nevada). Statistically the country has 15% of the world’s bird species; 4,500 or more species of butterflies; 16,000 or more plant species, 106 reptiles and 138 amphibian and the list goes on.
El Oriente (The Amazon):
It is said that the Amazon River was first encountered by the Europeans in Ecuador’s oriente during an expedition led by conquistador Francisco de Orellana.These first Europeans came to tell legends of great treasure and splendor in El Dorado but those who attempted to breech the vastness of the Amazon found not wealth but rather a nightmarish misadventure filled with parasites, disease, snakes and bugs of varying sizes. The area for most of its history was left alone allowing the indigenous people of these areas to maintain much of their customs and independence.
Since the 1960s however global demand for wood and oil have led to the development and exploitation of the region due to the bounty of oil and wood which in turn has fueled indigenous resistance and conflict. Despite the new Ecuadorian Constitution’s promises to protect the indigenous people and nature, it remains to be seen if things will change dramatically.
Despite Peru having taken a huge chunk of Ecuador’s rain-forest in a series of wars , the oriente still makes up almost half the country’s territory. This vast area is home to a tremendous bounty of ecological diversity with thousands of species of plants and animals living among the fog and rain covered canopies of the region. The astounding beauty of animal and plant life is of course the main attraction for those who go to the Amazon and it is one of the main reasons for me coming to Ecuador.
La Sierra (The Highlands):
Cutting through the middle of the country, the Andean mountains play a huge role in the division and diversity of the country. Historically it was here that the Incas governed the most effectively after their conquest of Ecuador and it is the sierra which has retained much of the ancestral language, customs and food of the Incas. However Spain’s arrival created a syncretic culture that is visible in the deeply religious people of the sierra and their more traditional and conservative attitudes. In largely indigenous cities such as Otavalo and Ambato, the Ecuadorian dialect of Kichwa an be heard and people dresses in traditional bright clothing can be seen. Though they remain largely on the fringes of society, things are changing and efforts are being made to create greater inclusion and respect.
The Andean mountains of Ecuador are full not only of mountains and high-altitude cities but also to dozens of volcanoes, the tallest of which is Chimborazo (which technically is the highest point on the planet due to its position close to the equator). The towering majesty of volcanoes capped with glistening ancient glaciers is something of a unique and surprising aspect due to Ecuador generally being referred to as tropical but Ecuador is more than just sun and heat.
In the sierra the high-altitude ensures that all throughout the year, the temperature remains quite cold and only gets slightly warmer during the summer months. Despite the very strong sun however, the temperature does not get very high and at night temperatures can drop to freezing during the coldest months.
La Costa (The Coast):
The Pacific Coast of Ecuador is one of the most vibrant and diverse parts of the country with different groups from Afro-Ecuadorians, to mestizos and recently an influx of Asian immigrants (especially from China). The beautiful waters and beaches of the country are located especially in Manta and Esmeraldas provinces
The people of the coast are generally friendly and less conservative than those in the sierra though it varies from person to person. Often the coast gets a bad reputation of being filled with crime, especially the large cities such as Guayaquil. While crime is increasingly a problem, it is not hard to avoid it if one is cautious.
The warm weather of the coast can often be difficult to handle such as my first visit to the area which was during the hot and humid rainy season. Nevertheless it is this weather that makes the cultivation of crops such as bananas, cacao and coffee so optimal. It is historically these crops that helped to fuel the growth of cities on the coast and pave the way for various economic booms and political changes.
The last region of Ecuador is by far its most well-known internationally. Most of us have heard before of the vast abundance of diversity and species that are unique to these islands and Charles Darwin’s study of the animals there leading to his theory of evolution. Indeed the volcanic islands are home to many species and are the main attraction for thousands of foreign and domestic visitors.
The elevation of the larger islands helps to make Galapagos slightly cooler in temperature than the coast which is primarily flat. The islands enjoy a relatively temperate climate that is dry unless it is the rainy season though the lack of large trees means that the sun can be extremely bright.
Since I was young I wanted to see the Galapagos because the biological diversity always seemed incredible. Now that I am in Ecuador, I am looking forward to the opportunity to experience the Galapagos and indeed everything that this diverse country has to offer.