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The smallest of the Andean republics, Ecuador is nonetheless one of the most interesting countries in the Americas.
For over 500 years, this land has been capturing the imagination of men eager to demystify El Dorado, that "mythical land strewn with plains of cinnamon trees, where it is pleasant to live and gold abounds". The list of those bold enough to try their luck is a long one: conquistadors, scientists, monks, travellers and tourists. Today, El Dorado is still a myth, and the gold of the Incas now glitters inside the country's many religious sanctuaries, silent but stirring testimonies to a rich past that was extraordinary in many ways, albeit marked by much bloodshed.
Wedged between Peru and Colombia, this small South American nation lies on the Pacific coast and is bisected by the Andes. It takes its name from the equator, the great circle perpendicular to the earth's axis of rotation and equidistant from its poles, which divides the surface into northern and southern hemispheres. It runs through the northern part of the country, right near Quito.
An amazingly varied country, Ecuador boasts magnificent scenery, with lofty volcanoes proudly studding the two cordilleras that form the country's backbone. It also features : superb religious monuments that bear witness to the era of Spanish colonization; a huge, luxuriant forest that covers the mysterious Amazon region that seems to stretch endlessly into the distance; scores of picturesque little native villages, which, perched in the Andes, seem frozen in the past; and finally, of course, the extraordinary world of the Galápagos Islands.
Aside from the magnificent Galápagos Islands, Ecuador is divided into three distinct geographical regions: the Costa (coast), the Sierra and the Oriente. It covers a total area of 270,670km2 (104,513 sq mi). In 1941, however, a war suddenly broke out between Ecuador and Peru.
The end result was that Ecuador had to surrender part of its territory to the Republic of Peru under the Protocol of Rio de Janeiro (1942). Don't be surprised, therefore, if a map put out in Ecuador doesn't show the same borders as one made elsewhere.
To the west, the low coastal plain commonly known as the Costa runs between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean for the entire length of the country, covering an area of over 70,000km2 (27,029 sq mi) of scenery and vegetation that change according to the variations in the climate. This coastal plain ranges in width from 30 to 200km (18 to 124mi).
The Sierra is made up of two parallel mountain chains (the Western and Eastern Cordilleras) which run through the country from north to south. Home to about 60% of the country's population, it's studded with over 30 awe-inspiring volcanoes, some of which are still active. The highest is Chimborazo at 6,300m (20,669ft), though it is no longer active; the highest active volcano is Cotopaxi at 5,978m (19,612ft). These cones are surrounded by many other smaller peaks and form a volcanic massif known as the Avenida de los Volcanes.
The Oriente, located east of the Eastern Cordillera, is part of the Amazon Basin. Although this region accounts for over half of the Ecuadoran territory, less than 10% of the total population lives here. These inhabitants are clustered in small, rustic, semi-autonomous villages linked by a vast river network that is easy for small boats to travel along. However, the discovery of oil in Lago Agrío in 1967 led to the construction of a road across the Sierra to Quito as wel
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