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Ecuador is a peaceful "New World" country replete with natural and cultural wonders. After a lifetime of being off the global radar screen, Ecuador is poised to emerge from its "incognito" status transformed into a beacon of inspiration for the planet's progressive minded. After all, not only is Ecuador the symbolic birthplace of Darwin's Theory of Evolution -- as a result of its association with the Galapagos islands -- but Ecuador was recently the first South American country to -- if only briefly -- have a full-blooded Amerindian woman as its Secretary of State (Nina Pacari).

This diminutive country -- Ecuador is about the the size of the state of Nevada -- is aptly characterized as possessing an exhilarating diversity in its landscape, biology, people and culture.

Ecuador's impressive natural diversity is due to both its "Middle of the World" location (i.e. on the Equator) and to the Andes mountain range which runs smack down the middle of the country. The Andes divide Ecuador into three regions:

• The Andes mountains or Sierra crosses Ecuador like a backbone, separating the coastal plains and the Amazon basin. 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).

• 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 amply 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 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.

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. The border with Colombia is 590 kilometers (km) in length and that with Peru is 1,420 km. The coast covers 2,237 km.

The country gets its name from the fact that it is crossed by the Equatorial Line. 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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