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Physical Features of Ecuador

Updated on April 15, 2014
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Ecuador is one of the so-called Andean republics that line South America's Pacific coast. It is bisected by twin ranges of the Andes chain and is situated on the equator, from which it derives its name. Its geography, its people, and its history are quite distinctive; yet in the inequities of its social structure and the instability of its politics, it may be considered the classic example of a turbulent Latin American republic.

The country has sharply defined geographic regions. From east to west they are: the Oriente, a sparsely populated territory east of the Andes; the Andean highlands, called the sierra; the coastal region, a plain extending from the Pacific to the Andean foothills; and the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago some 600 miles (960 km) west of the Ecuadoran coast, inhabited by picturesque wildlife but by very few people. The Galápagos and the Oriente are of marginal importance in national life. The fundamental fact of Ecuadoran existence is the contrast, and often the conflict, between coast and sierra, reflected not only in the geography but also in the nature of economic activities, ways of life, religious beliefs, ethnology, and political identification.

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The line of the equator runs a few miles north of Quito, leaving most of the nation's territory in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite its equinoctial location, Ecuador is fortunate in its climate, its highlands being comfortable because of their great elevation and its tropical coastal area being cooled by the Peru (or Humboldt) Current.

The Sierra

The sierra region includes about one fourth of the nation's land area. It consists of the Western and Eastern Cordilleras of the Andes, together with the valleys and plateaus lying between the two. The highest of the country's peaks is Mt. Chimborazo -at 20,577 feet (6,272 meters) it is higher than any mountain in North America. Several of the mountains-Sangay, Tunguragua, and Cotopaxi-are active volcanos. The intermontane valleys provide rich agricultural land, and the hills around Quito are green. The frequent rains in the sierra (averaging nearly 50 inches, or 125 cm, a year at Quito) contribute to a propitious climate for agriculture, and virtually all grains, fruits, and vegetables that can be grown in temperate zones are cultivated in the year-round growing season of the sierra. The flora and fauna are typical of the central Andes, varying greatly according to altitude and the amount of rainfall in each locality.

The thinness of the atmosphere -Quito lies at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters)- provides a bracing climate, with a wide variation in temperature over a 24-hour period.

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The Coast

In the coastal zone, which occupies another fourth of Ecuador's territory, tropical and subtropical commercial crops predominate. The climate is hotter than that of the sierra throughout the year, but it never reaches the unbearable heat and humidity found elsewhere in the tropics at this latitude. The rainy season from the end of December to the end of April, which is called winter, is actually slightly warmer than the so-called summer from May to December. Although there are scattered patches of desert and some ranges of low hills, the coastal region is generally well-watered and flat. Vegetation ranges from tropical rain forests to palm-studded grasslands and to cactus and brush. Reptile specimens are numerous.

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The major river system is that of the Guayas, in the south central part of the country. Guayaquil, the principal port of entry, is on the Guayas River, 30 miles (48 km) from its mouth.

The Oriente

The jungle region east of the Andes that is called the Oriente covers about half of the country's land area. Although the Oriente has a variety of trees that could profitably be exploited for their woods, sap, nuts, and berries, very little in the way of gathering activities exists. The region is inhabited only by handfuls of nomadic and savage Indians, hopefully pursued by large numbers of foreign missionaries, ethnologists, and linguists.

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