Situated on the equator, Ecuador is the smallest country in the Andean Highlands. Despite its size, it is probably the world’s most bio-diverse country, crammed with an astounding variety of wildlife, birds and vegetation existing in contrasting climatic zones. Within a short time a visitor can experience dramatic changes in scenery, temperature, and altitude when journeying between Pacific Coast beaches and the sweltering mosquito-ridden rainforest, to the charming capital city of Quito surrounded by ice-covered volcanoes, and to colourful highland markets that add character and warmth to the windswept highlands of the Andes Mountains.
The people, along with their cultures and traditions, have also been influenced by the extreme environment. The backbone of Ecuador is the Andean highlands, made up of two mountain chains and more than 30 volcanoes. Between them lies the central highland valley or sierra, the Avenue of the Volcanoes, at about 8,960 feet (2,800m) above sea level. This is the heartland of agricultural activity, punctuated by dozens of remote communities, and is where the bulk of the population lives. Larger towns like Saquisilí and Otavalo swell on market days, when villagers come to sell their produce and handiwork in a vibrant and colourful atmosphere of festivity. The sierra is also home to most of the old and historically important cities, including Quito.
With its beautiful colonial architecture, magnificent panoramic scenery, vibrant indigenous groups and welcoming people, Ecuador is one of the most enticing and rewarding countries to visit in South America. And, as if it needed any further promotion, one of the world’s greatest treasures of natural history lies in the bewitching Galapagos Islands, famed for the fearless and unique wildlife that inspired Charles Darwin, the island chain is roundly considered the highlight of any holiday in Ecuador.