Ecuador is not a typical travel destination. You can go from the balmy Pacific Coast to the high mountains to a remote corner of the jungle all in one day.

Don't plan on rushing through Ecuador, though: You'll need some time to appreciate the remarkable collection of landscapes, animals, plants and people that are found in each part of the country. You'll also find that the transportation system often prevents you from rushing anywhere.

The most remarkable species of birds and animals are found on the Galapagos Islands, which lie more than 600 mi/1,000 km offshore. Marine iguanas, giant tortoises, sea lions, blue- and red-footed boobies, pelicans and even a few penguins—these island residents inspired Charles Darwin to propose his theory of evolution.

Back on the mainland, the Andes Mountains (also known as the Sierra) are home to the capital city, Quito, and the UNESCO World Heritage site Cuenca, which has some of the finest colonial architecture in the Americas. The mountains are a sight in themselves—two chains of snowcapped peaks known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes (a name coined by the great German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt). In the smaller towns and villages of the Sierra, you'll see the descendants of Inca peoples, many of whom wear distinctive clothing and hats that identify them as residents of a particular area.

East of the Andes is the Amazon basin (or the Oriente). This interior jungle region, cut through with rivers and streams, ranks among the most accessible in South America and offers excellent opportunities to see the flora and fauna of the rain forest and to visit Amazonian tribes. West of the Andes are the coastal lowlands and Ecuador's largest city, the port of Guayaquil. The area is very hot and humid most of the year. Ecuadoreans flock to the beaches of the Pacific coast, but these aren't as attractive or interesting to foreign visitors as are the Sierra and the Oriente.

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