EQUATORIAL, ENVIRONMENTALLY DIVERSE ECUADOR
As its name suggests, Ecuador lies unequally across the equator, with most of its territory lying in the Southern Hemisphere. Ecuador offers 276,000 square kilometers of continental territory and 8,000 square kilometers of insular territory (being the Galápagos islands), and as such is one of South America’s smaller countries. Indeed, Ecuador is rather diminutive—equitable to the state of Colorado in size. Continental Ecuador neighbors Columbia to its north and Peru to its east and southern borders while western Ecuador faces the Pacific Ocean.
Ecuador has three distinct, dramatically differentiated types of terrain throughout its continental territory: the highlands making up the Sierra, the Amazonian jungle of the Oriente, and the coastal plains that make up the Costa. Much of this topographical division is due to the presence of the Andes within the country; two parallel mountain ranges of the Andes span Ecuador from the north to the south and give rise to Ecuador’s varying environments.
Ecuador’s diverse environments also generate different economic enterprises that sustain the country. The Sierra provides rich farmland for the Ecuadorian people. Meanwhile, bananas are produced in mass alone the Costa and have been a cornerstone of the Ecuadorian international market for a long time. In Ecuador’s more recent history, the Oriente has provided a way to diversify their economy, at least a bit, with the discovery of oil within the jungle terrain. This new economic venture has subsidized much of Ecuador’s economy in the latter half of the 20th century.
The Costa is a coastal region that follows the Pacific Ocean along Ecuador’s western region. It incorporates a portion of the foothills of the eastern Andes Mountains before stretching to the coastal plains. Although the term “coastal plains” may bring to mind stretches of flat tundra, the Pacific coastline along Ecuador is actually a varied composition of jungle, mangrove forests, white sand beaches, and fishing villages.
Much like Ecuador itself, La Costa is made up of four provinces, each distinct: Guayas, El Oro, Manabi, and Esmeraldas. The Guayas Province is home to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s primary port as well as the country’s largest city. The province, as well as the city, gets most of its attention as a tourist starting point and its commercial capacities rather than as a destination in and of itself. However, its beaches are beginning to gain note. Similarly, the El Oro province is often seen as a stopover from Ecuador to Peru as it extends from Guayaquil to the oft-contested Peruvian border. However, with its thriving banana plantations its not a bad place to stop for a snack.
The Esmeraldas and Manabi provinces tend to draw more attention. Esmeraldas may not have many emeralds, but this northern province gets its name from its lush tropical forests, mangroves and estuaries. The Edenic, pristine landscapes have given rise to the province’s other name, ‘The Green Province.’ While many visit Esmeraldas for its unique river safaris through dense jungles, visitors find their way to southern Manabi for its coastal towns, humpback whale watching, and other beach related pursuits.
The Sierra is a collage of color and a panoramic testament to the Ecuadorian peoples’ work farming the region and growing products that shade the region in tones of gold, lilac, and amber. The Sierra lies in the Highlands and Ecuadorian Andes, and down in its valleys people grow wheat, corn, barley, and quinoa along with other harvests that belong more expressly to nature. This naturally and culturally significant region is comprised of active volcanoes, hot springs, crater lakes, cloud forests, and moorland. The two major chains of the Andes, the Cordillera Occidental, or Western Chain, and the Cordillera Oriental, or Eastern Chain, shadow these colorful valleys.
Along with its rich farming land, the region also has a well developed tourist industry that brings in the most visitors throughout the country. With a wealth of outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and skiing the Ecuadorian Andes are an outdoor adventurists’ dreams. That being said, the region also has some of the country’s best cultural festivals, accommodations, and opportunities to meet the local people. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, lies in this region and is one of La Sierra’s most notable historical draws.
Ecuador’s Oriente is riotous with life. With the continuous clattering of birds and insects sounding above in the gleaming green canopy, the bright splashes of vividly colored birds and butterflies flitting through the understory, and the cacophonous clamoring of animals moving throughout the jungle, the Oriente can overwhelm the senses.
The alto Oriente, or high Oriente, begins on the borders of the eastern Andes. In this region, the páramo, or an ecosystem comprised of alpine tundra below the permanent snowline, descends into montane cloud forests. As the mountainous forests continue east, they soften into the bajo, or lower Oriente, where the Amazonian jungle abounds in a verdant tangle. The rainforest extends for over 250km and touches the borders of Columbia and Peru; overall, the Oriente region covers nearly half of Ecuador’s continental terrain.
While the still rather impenetrable rainforest can be explored through jungle tours and paddling along the rivers with dugout canoes, such exploration is relatively recent in Ecuador’s history. Populations of indigenous Ecuadorians have existed and remained obscured from outside eyes from South America’s early days by living within la selva, or jungle, and the Oriente’s difficult ecosystem rebuffed many attempts of outside colonization.
The conquistador attempted to infiltrate the jungle with dreams of cinnamon and other spices (el pais de canela) and the elusive El Dorado driving their steps. The conquistadors may not have found bountiful natural riches and rivers of gold, but they did discover el infierno verde, or the green hell. The verdant paradise had a hellish underbelly filled with poisonous animals, humidity, and hazardous terrain. Overall, expeditions were disastrous on such an epic scale that the Spanish empire discouraged any attempts of colonizing the Oriente.
The Oriente’s forbidding environment kept out most outsiders until the 1960s when gas and oil reserves were discovered. Of course, with such economic and international pressure, the region was quickly transformed by industrial demands. The destruction was swift and widespread, and by the 1970s Ecuador was obligated to create national and international biosphere reserves throughout the region to protect large tracts of forests from similar devastation. Although the Oriente was forever changed and continues to face ongoing oil and gas drilling ventures, conservation is a primary concern both internationally and for Ecuador’s internal politics.
Ecuador’s diverse terrain also has an impact on the country’s climate. The lowlands and the Costa experience a tropical climate that supports their jungle terrain, while the higher elevations that occur further inland experience a cooler climate.
Proximity to the western or eastern flanks of the Andes are a primary factor in Ecuador’s rainfall. Along the Andes’ western slopes, rainfall is heavier from October to May and drier from the months of June to September. The weather follows an opposite pattern along the Andes’ eastern slopes, as that region receives heavier rainfall from March to September. Similarly, northern Ecuador is much wetter than its southern highland counterpart. Although the coast enjoys a cool sea mist known as garua through June to November, Ecuador’s Costa enjoys a much milder climate.