Ecuador: A World of Diversity

My parents emigrated from Quito, Ecuador, to Long Beach, California, back in 1958. Although I was born and raised in Long Beach, I have spent many holidays in Ecuador and have since kept close ties to my family there. Now that I am married to an Ecuadorean, I have even closer links with the homeland.

Being such a small country, Ecuador is often overlooked in comparison to larger neighbours such as Peru, Argentina and Brazil.

Nestled between Peru (to the south) and Colombia (to the north), Ecuador is in the north-west corner of South America. The country is quite small, about half the size of France, with a population of approximately 13 million. Mainly since the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Ecuadoreans have emigrated, mostly to the U.S. and Spain. There is even a small community right here where I live, in London. Economic instability has led many people to leave for developed nations in search of better opportunities.

The country can be divided into four geographic regions: Costa (the coast), Sierra (the Andean region), Oriente (the Amazonian rainforest) and, of course, the well-known Galapagos Islands. Because of its immense geographical diversity, Ecuador has been described as a microcosm of South America. Thanks to its compact size, within hours you can travel from beaches, to mountains, to tropical forests.

The coastal area offers visitors sandy beaches alongside a warm Pacific Ocean. For me, one of the nicest seaside towns is Salinas, in the province of Guayas. It combines the mellowness of a small town with a vibrant nightlife, full of hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. Still, if you want the buzz of a big city, you only need to head to Guayaquil, less than 2 hours’ drive away. Guayaquil is Ecuador’s most populous city, a bustling commercial port. In the past decade, regeneration projects have created “El Malecon 2000”, the stylish boardwalk by the river Daule, new shopping centres, such as El Mall del Sol (Mall of the Sun), one of the largest in South America, and improvement of the hilly, bohemian neighbourhood known as “Las Peñas”.

If we head east from Guayaquil, we arrive in the Sierra, home to the majestic Andes. Quito, the capital city, sits at a whopping 9000 feet above sea level amid lush, green mountains; however, since the equator is a mere 22 miles away, the climate can be described as spring-like. The average daytime temperature is about 20 Celsius (although it can be warmer, especially when the strong, equatorial sun is shining) and around 5 to 10 Celsius at night. Anywhere you are in Quito, the Pichincha Mountain dominates your view. Its volcano erupted back in 1999, luckily not causing major damage to Quito, but leaving the city coated in a thin layer of ash. Quito is fittingly the first stop for many avid mountain-climbers who head out to climb higher peaks, such as the Cotopaxi and Chimborazo volcanoes. (Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in the world.) If you’re fortunate enough to have a flight arriving in Quito during the daytime, you will have a clear view of at least a few snow-capped Andean peaks.

Quito itself is divided into three main areas: El Centro, “the centre”; El Sur, “the south”, an industrial and working-class residential area; and El Norte, “the north”, a commercial and more affluent residential area. In the northern part of the city, you will find large, American-style shopping centres and high rise office buildings. In contrast, we see the legacy of the past Spanish colonialisation in the centre of Quito. The numerous Catholic churches showcase elaborate sculptures, priceless 18th century paintings and gold-plated walls. A visit to this part of Quito is a must. I recommend a night-time buggy ride, a romantic tour taking in the illuminated buildings and narrow, cobbled streets.

Outside of Quito, still in the Andes region, the market town of Otavalo is only an hour and a half’s drive away. The indigenous people of this area are famous for creating beautiful textiles and handicrafts. Saturday is the town’s busiest market day, popular with Quiteños looking for a good day out at the weekend. Here you will find bargain wool scarves & jumpers, alongside colourful jewellery and ceramics. My personal favourites, however, are the rugs and slippers made from the fur of alpacas, domestic animals similar to llamas. Alpaca fur is the softest you will ever feel and can be enjoyed guilt-free as these animals are sheared, not slaughtered, for their fur.

Half an hour by bus or car from Otavalo, you will reach San Pablo del Lago (Lake Saint Paul). Some people take to the water on jet skis, but I prefer a more leisurely inflatable boat trip, taking in the view of the impressive Imbabura Mountain, referred to as taita (father) Imbabura by the indigenous people of the area.

Moving south within the Andes region, we come to Cuenca, considered the most beautiful town in Ecuador. Unlike Quito, there are no skyscrapers here; the colonial feel has been preserved throughout the architecture of the city. This is a land of artists – painters, sculptures, potters and jewellry-makers. This is the place to buy gold and silver trinkets at affordable prices.

Moving north to the province of Cañar, we arrive at the town of Ingapirca. Here we find the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador. Ingapirca is believed to have been a religious site where the ancient Incas made offerings to their nature gods. The most important building here is the temple to the sun god.

At the eastern extreme of Ecuador is the Amazonian rainforest region. This stunning area has remained at least partly untouched by modernisation. Some conservation projects are in place, working alongside indigenous nations to preserve the precious natural resources against exploitation by oil and logging companies. As you may know, the Amazon region contains the greatest biodiversity on earth. Here are some amazing facts about the Ecuadorian Amazon region:

  • It contains about twice the number of bird species found in North America, Europe or Australia.
  • It boasts an astonishing 10% of all the tree species on earth.
  • One hectare of lowland rainforest can contain as many frog species as in all of North America.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the Galápagos Islands, made famous by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. The Islands were named after the famous native tortoises, the largest in the world. Visitors to the Galápagos fly from either Quito or Guayaquil and then tour the different islands by boat. The Galápagos Islands are a magical place for nature lovers since the animals are unafraid of people, given their isolation from humans for most of their history.