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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.


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