Ecuador Travel Guide
Ecuador, officially the Republic of Ecuador, is a representative democratic republic in South America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, and by the Pacific Ocean to the west. It is one of only two countries in South America, along with Chile, that do not have a border with Brazil. The country also includes the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) west of the mainland.
The main spoken language in Ecuador is Spanish (94% of the population). Languages of official use in native communities include Quichua, Shuar, and 11 other languages. Ecuador has an area of 258,238 km2 (99,706 square miles).
Its capital city is Quito, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 1970s for having the best preserved and least altered historic center in Latin America. The country's largest city is Guayaquil.
The historic center of Cuenca, the third largest city in the country, was also declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, for being an outstanding example of a planned inland Spanish style colonial city in the Americas.
Ecuador is also home to a great variety of species, many of them endemic, like those of the Galapagos Islands. This species diversity makes Ecuador one of the 17 mega diverse countries in the world. The new constitution of 2008 is the first in the world to recognize legally enforceable Rights of Nature, or ecosystem rights.
Ecuador is a presidential republic and became independent in 1830, after having been part of the Spanish colonial empire, and for a much shorter time of the republic of Gran Colombia. It is a medium-income country with an HDI score of 0.720 (2011).
Galapagos Islands Travel Guide
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed on either side of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, 926 km (500 nautical miles) west of continental Ecuador, of which they are a part.
The Galapagos Islands and its surrounding waters form an Ecuadorian province, a national park, and a biological marine reserve. The principal language on the islands is Spanish. The islands have a population of slightly over 25,000.
The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.
The first crude navigation chart of the islands was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the British noblemen who helped the privateer's cause. More recently, the Ecuadorian government gave most of the islands Spanish names. While the Spanish names are official, many users (especially ecological researchers) continue to use the older English names, principally because those were the names used when Charles Darwin visited.
The islands are found at the coordinate's 1°40'N–1°36'S, 89°16'–92°01'W. Straddling the equator, islands in the chain are located in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with Volcán Wolf and Volcán Ecuador on Isla Isabela being directly on the equator. Española, the southernmost island, and Darwin, the northernmost island, are spread out over a distance of 220 km (137 mi). The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers them wholly within the South Pacific Ocean, however. The Galapagos Archipelago consists of 7,880 km2 (3,040 sq mi) of land spread over 45,000 km2 (17,000 sq mi) of ocean. The largest of the islands, Isabela, measures 2,250 sq mi/5,827 km2 and makes up half of the total land area of the Galapagos. Volcán Wolf on Isabela is the highest point, with an elevation of 1,707 m (5,600 feet) above sea level.
The group consists of 13 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The islands are located at the Galapagos Triple Junction. The archipelago is located on the Nazca Plate (a tectonic plate), which is moving east/southeast, diving under the South American Plate at a rate of about 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) per year. It is also atop the Galapagos hotspot, a place where the Earth's crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. The first islands formed here at least 8 million and possibly up to 90 million years ago.
While the older islands have disappeared below the sea as they moved away from the mantle plume, the youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in April 2009 where lava from the volcanic island Fernandina started flowing both towards the island's shoreline and into the centre caldera.
Listed below, are the 13 main islands (with a land area larger than 1 km2) of the archipelago (with their English names) shown alphabetically:
Baltra Island – Also known as South Seymour, Baltra is a small flat island located near the centre of the Galapagos. It was created by geological uplift. The island is very arid, and vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cacti and palo santo trees.
Until 1986, Baltra Airport was the only airport serving the Galapagos. Now, there are two airports which receive flights from the continent; the other is located on San Cristóbal Island. Private planes flying to Galapagos must fly to Baltra, as it is the only airport with facilities for planes overnight.
On arriving in Baltra, all visitors are immediately transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is located in a small bay, where the boats cruising Galapagos await passengers. The second is a ferry dock, which connects Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz.
During the 1940s, scientists decided to move 70 of Baltra's land iguanas to the neighbouring North Seymour Island as part of an experiment. This move had unexpected results during the military occupation of Baltra in World War II; the native iguanas became extinct on the island. During the 1980s, iguanas from North Seymour were brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station as part of a breeding and repopulation project, and in the 1990s, land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. As of 1997, scientists counted 97 iguanas living on Baltra; 13 of which were born on the islands.
In 2007 and 2008, the Baltra airport was remodelled to include additional restaurants, shops and an improved visitor area.
Bartolome Island – Bartolome Island is a volcanic islet just off the east coast of Santiago Island in the Galapagos Islands group. It is one of the "younger" islands in the Galapagos archipelago. This island, and neighbouring Sulivan Bay on Santiago Island, are named after lifelong friend of Charles Darwin, Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, who was a Lieutenant aboard HMS Beagle. Today Sulivan Bay is often misspelled Sullivan Bay. This island is one of the few that is home to the Galapagos penguin which is the only wild penguin species to live on the equator. The green turtle is another animal that resides on the island.
Darwin Island – This island is named after Charles Darwin. It has an area of 1.1 square km (0.4 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 168 m (551 ft). Here, fur seals, frigates, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, whales, marine turtles, and red-footed and Nazca boobies can be seen.
Española Island – Its name was given in honor of Spain. It also is known as Hood, after Viscount Samuel Hood. It has an area of 60 square km (23 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 206 meters (676 feet).
Española is the oldest island at around 3.5 million years, and the southernmost in the group. Due to its remote location, Española has a large number of endemic species. It has its own species of lava lizard, mockingbird, and tortoise Española's marine iguanas exhibit a distinctive red coloration change between the breeding season. Española is the only place where the waved albatross nests. Some of the birds have attempted to breed on Genovesa (Tower) Island, but unsuccessfully. Española's steep cliffs serve as the perfect runways for these birds, which take off for their ocean feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru.
Española has two visitor sites. Gardner Bay is a swimming and snorkelling site, and offers a great beach. Punta Suarez has migrant, resident, and endemic wildlife, including brightly colored marine iguanas, Española lava lizards, hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, red-billed tropicbirds, Galapagos hawks, 3 species of Darwin's finches, and the waved albatross.
Fernandina Island – The name was given in honor of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina has an area of 642 square kilometers (248 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 1,494 m (4,902 ft). This is the youngest and westernmost island. On 13 May 2005, a new, very eruptive process began on this island, when an ash and water vapour cloud rose to a height of 7 km (23,000 ft) and lava flows descended the slopes of the volcano on the way to the sea. Punta Espinosa is a narrow stretch of land where hundreds of marine iguanas gather, largely on black lava rocks. The famous flightless cormorants inhabit this island, as do Galapagos penguins, pelicans, Galapagos sea lions and Galapagos fur seals. Different types of lava flows can be compared, and the mangrove forests can be observed.
Floreana Island – It was named after Juan Jose Flores, the first President of Ecuador, during whose administration the government of Ecuador took possession of the archipelago. It is also called Santa Maria, after one of the caravels of Columbus. It has an area of 173 square kilometers (67 square miles) and a maximum elevation of 640 meters (2,100 feet). It is one of the islands with the most interesting human history, and one of the earliest to be inhabited. Flamingos and green sea turtles nest (December to May) on this island. The patapegada or Galápagos petrel, a sea bird which spends most of its life away from land, is found here. At Post Office Bay, since the 18th century whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as post office so that mail could be picked up and delivered to their destinations, mainly Europe and the United States, by ships on their way home. At the "Devil's Crown", an underwater volcanic cone and coral formations are found.
Genovesa Island – The name is derived from Genoa, Italy. It has an area of 14 square kilometers (5.4 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 76 meters (249 feet). This island is formed by the remaining edge of a large caldera that is submerged. Its nickname of "the bird island" is clearly justified. At Darwin Bay, frigate birds and swallow-tailed gulls, the only nocturnal species of gull in the world, can be seen. Red-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels and Darwin finches are also in sight. Prince Philip's Steps is a bird-watching plateau with Nazca and red-footed boobies. There is a large palo santo forest.
Isabela Island – This island was named in honour of Queen Isabela. With an area of 4,640 square kilometres (1,792 square miles), it is the largest island of the Galapagos. Its highest point is Volcán Wolf, with an altitude of 1,707 meters (5,600 feet). The island's seahorse shape is the product of the merging of six large volcanoes into a single land mass. On this island, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans and Sally lightfoot crabs abound. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanoes of Isabela, land iguanas and Galapagos tortoises can be observed, as well as Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks, Galapagos doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. The third-largest human settlement of the archipelago, Puerto Villamil, is located at the southeastern tip of the island. It is the only island to have the equator run across it. It is also the only place in the world where a penguin can be in its natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere.
Marchena Island: Named after Fray Antonio Marchena, it has an area of 130 square kilometers (50 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 343 meters (1,125 feet). Galapagos hawks and sea lions inhabit this island, and it is home to the Marchena lava lizard, an endemic animal.
North Seymour Island – Its name was given after an English nobleman, Lord Hugh Seymour. It has an area of 1.9 square km (0.7 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 28 m (92 ft). This island is home to a large population of blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. It hosts one of the largest populations of frigate birds. It was formed from geological uplift.
Pinzon Island – Named after the Pinzon brothers, captains of the Pinta and Niña caravels, it has an area of 18 square kilometers (7 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 458 meters (1,503 feet).
Pinta Island – Named after the Pinta caravel, it has an area of 60 km2 (23 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 777 meters (2,549 feet). Sea lions, Galapagos hawks, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and dolphins can be seen here. Pinta Island was home to the last remaining Pinta tortoise, called Lonesome George. He was moved from Pinta Island to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where scientists were attempting to breed from him. However, Lonesome George died in June 2012 without producing any offspring.
Rabida Island – It bears the name of the convent of Rabida, where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas. It has an area of 4.9 square kilometers (1.9 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 367 meters (1,204 feet). The high amount of iron contained in the lava at Rábida gives it a distinctive red colour. White-cheeked pintail ducks live in a saltwater lagoon close to the beach, where brown pelicans and boobies have built their nests. Until recently, flamingos were also found in the lagoon, but they have since moved on to other islands, likely due to a lack of food on Rabida. Nine species of finches have been reported in this island.
San Cristobal Island – It bears the name of the patron saint of seafarers, "St. Christopher". Its English name was given after William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. It has an area of 558 square kilometers (215 square miles) and its highest point rises to 730 meters (2395 feet). This is the first island in the Galapagos Archipelago Charles Darwin visited during his voyage on the Beagle. This islands hosts frigate birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, blue- and red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, marine iguanas, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls. Its vegetation includes Calandrinia Galapagos, Lecocarpus Darwinii, and trees such as Lignum Vitae. The largest freshwater lake in the archipelago, Laguna El Junco, is located in the highlands of San Cristobal. The capital of the province of Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, lies at the southern tip of the island.
Santa Cruz Island – Given the name of the Holy Cross in Spanish, its English name derives from the British vessel HMS Indefatigable. It has an area of 986 square kilometers (381 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 864 meters (2834 feet). Santa Cruz hosts the largest human population in the archipelago, the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park Service are located here. The GNPS and CDRS operate a tortoise breeding centre here, where young tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat. The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer exuberant flora, and are famous for the lava tunnels. Large tortoise populations are found here. Black Turtle Cove is a site surrounded by mangroves, which sea turtles, rays and small sharks sometimes use as a mating area. Cerro Dragón, known for its flamingo lagoon, is also located here, and along the trail one may see land iguanas foraging.
Santa Fe Island – Named after a city in Spain, it has an area of 24 square kilometers (9 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 259 meters (850 feet). Santa Fe hosts a forest of Opuntia cactus, which are the largest of the archipelago, and Palo Santo. Weathered cliffs provide a haven for swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds and shear-waters petrels. Santa Fe species of land iguanas are often seen, as well as lava lizards.
Santiago Island – Its name is equivalent to Saint James in English; it is also known as San Salvador, after the first island discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean Sea. This island has an area of 585 square kilometers (226 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 907 meters (2976 feet). Marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks are found here. Pigs and goats, which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species, have been eradicated (pigs by 2002; goats by the end of 2006). Darwin finches and Galapagos hawks are usually seen, as well as a colony of fur seals. At Sulivan Bay, a recent (around 100 years ago) pahoehoe lava flow can be observed.
Wolf Island – This island was named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf. It has an area of 1.3 square kilometers (0.5 square miles) and a maximum altitude of 253 meters (830 feet). Here, fur seals, frigate birds, Nazca and red-footed boobies, marine iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls can be seen. The most famous resident is the vampire finch, which feeds partly on blood pecked from other birds, and is only found on this island.
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