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Ecuador, in many ways, is an enigma. Ask the average person where or what it is, and most will draw a blank. For instance, most people don’t know that the fabled Galapagos Islands make up part of its territory, or that its capital, Quito, boasts a World Heritage Site-listed Old Town, its dreaming spires glinting in the high Andean air. It’s is one of the smallest countries in South America, semi-swallowed up by its larger neighbors: Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and southeast, and mammoth Brazil to the east. However, as you’ll discover soon enough, and as an advertising campaign for oranges once put it, the small ones are more juicy.

Bisected horizontally by the equator - from which its name derives - and vertically by the young volcanic Andes mountains, at only 270,670 sq km [104,208 square miles] it is only a smidgen larger than Great Britain, and no bigger than the state of Nevada in the United States. But if you imagine its mountainous, peak-and-trough topography as a crumpled handkerchief, and then smoothed that handkerchief flat, you would see that the surface area of the country is far, far greater than it appears on a map. Despite this, Ecuadorians still cultivate a deep inferiority complex. Losing some half of its territory [in the Amazon] to Peru in 1942 and the pervasive influence of the United States over its economy and politics have resulted in Ecuadorians belittling their great nation.

Ecuador’s size is illusory in more ways than one. The density of its mountainous areas, its equatorial location and its position at the meeting point of two major Pacific currents all combine to create a diverse pattern of microclimates and a rich repository of plant and animal life. If countries were ranked according to the size of their bird population rather than their human population, Ecuador - with some 1,600 recorded avian species - would be bigger than the United Sates and Canada combined. Measured in terms of the populations of some unique species of large turtles, pink dolphins, marine iguanas and other endemic creatures, Ecuador becomes the biggest country in the world - or even the only country in the world.

Ecuador is enormously wealthy in terms of biodiversity. Some areas of the country, particularly where the slopes of the Andes meet the rim of the Amazon Basin, are considered to be the most biodiverse areas on earth. Hiking its parks, you descend from snow-capped peaks and bleak paramo moors, through dense cloudforest and on down to steamy rain forests. You come from the land of the swooping condor to that of the harpy eagle, from the redoubt of the shy spectacled bear to that of the revered jaguar.

In terms of people too, its size belies its wealth. Along with Peru and Bolivia, Ecuador’s indigenous population ranks among the Andes’ most visible, and more recently, vociferous. Traveling along the country’s “Avenue of Volcanoes”, brightly-clad Indians muster for their weekly markets, chattering in the highland language, Quichua. They gather for their festivals, where pre-Colombian animist beliefs have fused with Catholicism over the centuries. Nearly every province or region in the country is inhabited by a different indigenous community, who distinguish themselves, above all, by their dress. Learning to recognize the often subtle differences between them, and to learn their histories and heritages, ranks among the most enriching experiences one can enjoy in the country.

The three distinct regions which divide the country geographically also create diverse identities. On the coast, farmers known as montubios are often mixed-blood Indians and the descendants of African slaves. In Esmeraldas Province, for example, marimba music and voodoo rites are still very much alive. On the coast too lies the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, a hubbub of heat, commerce and fast-talkers, a million miles from the more sedate Sierra.

Across the highlands and down in the Amazon Basin, a tiny proportion of the population lives in its expanses of rainforest. Pastaza Province, for instance, is the country’s largest, yet least-populated. Here the various Indian peoples have been dragged from their Stone Age existences into the twenty-first century by the encroachment of oil companies, loggers and colonizers. The more remote groups however, still live lives little-changed for millennia.

From the Amazon to the Andes is not only a huge change in altitude, which leaves one breathless when carrying bags, it’s also a cultural jump from a culture of animist hunter gatherers, in some parts of the rainforest, to baroque churches and slick city skyscrapers.

For the traveler, Ecuador offers a bottomless wealth of possibilities: from adrenaline sports such as white-water rafting, mountain climbing and cross-country biking, or less strenuous horseback rides among remote villages, birdwatching in cloudforests, hiking the highlands and trekking rainforest trails. More sedate still, wander its colonial churches and towns, observe the unique wildlife of the Galapagos, enjoy its cuisine or sink into the lap of luxury at one of its country haciendas. Beaches, it has too, aplenty. Most of them are long, wide and empty, without a tourist or traveler, or even a local to be seen. About the only thing that Ecuador hasn’t got is decent golf courses.

As Charles Darwin wrote of the Galapagos Islands, which inspired his ground-breaking theory of evolution, Ecuador “seems to be a little world within itself.” Little? Certainly. But, as the saying goes, small is beautiful. In Ecuador’s case, size isn’t everything.

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