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After a lifetime of being off the global tourism radar screen, Ecuador is poised to emerge from its "incognito" status. Every year, more and more people are discovering Ecuador's exhilarating diversity as reflected in its landscape, biology, people and culture. Add to this the near perfect climate, the low cost of living and the peaceful nature of its politics and you have a world class destination for any budget.

Ecuador is located on the northwestern side of South America and is bordered by Colombia to the north, by Peru to the south and east, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. Ecuador gets its name from the fact that it is crossed by the Equatorial Line.

Ecuador's impressive natural diversity is due to two circumstances that enjoy their greatest confluence in the Andes of South America. First, Ecuador's "Middle of the World" location (i.e. on the equator or in the tropics) means that Ecuador enjoys a vastly greater diversity of vegetation than say temperate regions. Second, Ecuador's biological diversity is greatly enhanced by the range in altitudes that the Andes mountain affords the landscape.

The Andes mountain range crosses Ecuador smack down the middle dividing Ecuador into three regions:

• The Sierra. Here you can find huge mountains like Chimborazo (6,319 meters), Cotopaxi (at 5,897 m, the highest active volcano in the world) and Cayambe (5,790 m and the only place with snow on the equator) and active volcanoes such as Tungurahua.

• The Oriente (Amazon tropical rainforest) is located in the eastern part of Ecuador and is characterized by an endless sea of green and a tropical wet climate. The Amazon is the region with the greatest biodiversity in Ecuador.

• The Pacific Coast or Littoral possess the most fertile land in Ecuador. It is home to expansive banana plantations. Ecuador's coastline is famous for its pristine tropical beaches, unique wildlife and quaint fishing villages

In addition, mainland Ecuador's natural diversity is complemented by the famed Galapagos Islands. These volcanic islands are located in the Pacific Ocean 960 km off the coast of continental Ecuador. The unique fauna found on the archipelago inspired the British naturalist, Charles Darwin, to discover the Theory of Evolution.

As a result of its small size (Ecuador is only 283,560 square kilometers), all these regions can be readily visited in a short time giving rise to the adage that in Ecuador "you can see the sun rise over the Amazon, have lunch in the Andes and finish the day by watching the sun set over the Pacific."

Ecuador's cultural diversity stems principally from its many colorful indigenous tribes. Unlike other "New World" countries, Amerindians are an integral part of Ecuador's authenticity and political landscape.

Reassuringly, as a result of a broad-based, grassroots movement, the preservation of Ecuador's natural and cultural patrimony has become a political priority . Ecuadorians understand that eco-tourism is not only a viable economic alternative but a sustainable way of life.

As you will discover in these pages, Ecuador is well worth a visit.

The time zone in continental Ecuador is UTC/GMT - 5 hours, and in the Galapagos Islands UTC/GMT - 6.

In Ecuador, 110 V, 60 cycles, AC, is used which is the same as in the US.A.

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