In geological time, Ecuador is a relatively young country formed by the collision of tectonic plates just a few million years ago. The clash of these subterranean titans threw up the great mountain system, the Andean cordillera , that forms the 6,500km [4,000-mile] western fringe of South America. Like the Himalayas, these young, rugged and sharp-ridged mountains aren't yet time-hardened nor ground smooth and smaller by the relentless impact of wind and water. Meanwhile, underground, the titanic plates continue to shift around making Ecuador constantly vulnerable to sudden earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Lying 1,000 km [625 miles] off the Pacific coast, the Galapagos Islands were created of the solidified lava from erupting undersea volcanoes. It is thought that they are attached to a slowly moving tectonic plate, named Nazca after a pre-Incan coastal state. Below Nazca lies the stationary Hot Spot in the earth's magma. As Nazca inches its way to the southeast, nudged by other titans to the north and west, Hot Spot shoots torpedoes up from its hull, so to speak, creating new volcanoes and, possibly, new islands. This theory fits with the fact that the younger, more volcanically active islands such as Fernandina and Isabela, are on the northwest side of the archipelago, while the older ones, such as Espanola, are to the southeast. It also supports the now current belief that Galapagos Islands have never been physically attached to the mainland.
Including the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador consists of four contrasting regions, each one distinctly different from the others. The Galapagos are arid, volcanic outcrops patterned with moon-like lava flows and twisted rock formations. No soft Pacific palms fringe their rocky shores. Plants and creatures here that have adapted to these harsh conditions are tough and hardy - thick-skinned iguanas, giant armor-plated tortoises, blubber-bound sea lions, spiny acacia, spiky cactuses, saltbush and scalesia.
The coastline and the coastal plain, simply called La Costa, present a less fierce face — marshland, mangrove swamps [or what is left of them after the invasion of shrimp farms], creeks, estuaries and long stretches of empty beaches swathed with palm trees. The hot and humid coastal plains were thickly forested before man arrived with his machete to create banana, cacao, coffee, sugar cane and rice plantations. As these plantations encroached further upon the forest, Ecuador became a full-fledged banana republic and is now reputed to be the world's leading exporter.
Upwards and eastwards, the flanks of the Andes are clothed in mists and residual areas of thick cloud forests threaded with silvery waterfalls. In the highland valleys, the Sierra, the face of the landscape takes a more worn and hewn look. Tilled and re-tilled for centuries before the Incas and the Spanish came along, the ancient, geometric fields, terraced on the steeper slopes, transform the valleys into tapestries woven in pastel shades of brown and green. Splashes of deep red on the ponchos of Indian women herding sheep provide a vivid color contrast, while llamas grazing by high mountain lakes embellish the pastoral scenes. Above the valleys tower snow-white peaks, stern and dangerous, the world's tallest active volcanoes.
Over the other side of the mountains, the eastern slopes of the Andes stretch towards the great Amazon Basin, the world's largest rainforest. The word itself, Amazonia, resonates with deep mysteries and hidden dangers. Today, however, the forest resounds to the explosions of oil exploration, chainsaws, clear-cutting and the protests of its people: Ecuador enjoys the grim fame of the Amazon Basin's highest rate of deforestation.
The Ecuadorians call this vast area of their country El Oriente, The East. The discovery of oil in the Oriente in the 1970s has led to the building of new roads, destruction and contamination of huge tracts of virgin forest and increasing numbers of “colonists,” as well as new diseases, cultural decimation and anger within the local indigenous populations. Rivers flowing down the Andes and through their tribal lands eventually link up with the mighty Amazon River on its 3,200km [2,000-mile] journey across Brazil and into the Atlantic Ocean.