Geography of Ecuador

Ecuador is a country in western South America, bordering the Pacific Ocean at the Equator, for which the country is named.Ecuador encompasses a wide range of natural formations and climates, from the desert-like southern coast to the snowcapped peaks of the Andes mountain range to the plains of the Amazon Basin. Cotopaxi in Ecuador is one of the world's highest active volcanos. It also has a large series of cliffs that follow the southern border and spill into the northwest area of Peru.

Area and borders

Ecuador is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, and has 2,237 km of coastline. It has 2010 km of land boundaries, with Colombia in the north (590 km border) and Peru in the east and south (1,420 km border). Ecuador continues to contest the boundary with Peru, which was established by the Rio Protocol of 1942 and ceded to Peru a large portion of territory east of the Andes.

Ecuador has a total area is 283,560 km² (109,483 square miles), including the Galápagos Islands. Of this, 276,840 km² is land and 6,720 km² water. Ecuador is one of the smaller countries in South America, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Nevada, or roughly the size of the state of Colorado.

Maritime claims

Ecuador makes maritime claims of a continental shelf between the mainland and Galápagos Islands and a territorial sea of 200 nautical miles.


The capital and second most-populous city is Quito, with a population of 1.4 million. The most-populous city is Guayaquil (2 million). Other important cities include Cuenca (0.41 million), Ambato (0.28 million), Portoviejo (0.23 million), Machala (0.21 million), and Loja (0.14 million).

Geographical regions

Ecuador is divided into three continental regions—the Costa (coast), Sierra (mountains), and Oriente (east)—and one insular region, the Galápagos Islands (officially Archipiélago de Colón). The continental regions extend the length of the country from north to south and are separated by the Andes Mountains.

Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos are located 1,000 km west of the Ecuadorian coast. They are noted for their association with Charles Darwin, whose observation of animals here during the voyage of the "Beagle" led to his formation of the theory of natural selection as a means of evolution.

La Costa (the coast)

The western coastal area of Ecuador, bordering the Pacific Ocean, rising from coastal plain with many mangroves, although many of these have now been destroyed by shrimp farming, to the foothills of the Andes Mountains to the east; there are many banana, cacao and coffee plantations, as well. Guayaquil, located on the southern part of the coast is the biggest city of the country. In the north coast of Ecuador the port of Balao in Esmeraldas is used for oil export and the port of Manta is used by the United States Air Force as a control point for narcotics traffic control.

La Sierra (the highlands)

The central belt of Ecuador that includes the Andes Mountains, inland from the coast; with volcanoes and mountain peaks that sport year-round snow on the equator; many areas long since deforested by agriculture; a number of cut-flower growing operations; at a certain altitude zone may be found cloud forests.

The northern Ecuadorian Andes are divided into three parallel cordilleras which run in what is similar to an S-shape from north to south: the western, central (Cordillerra Real) and eastern (Cordillera Occidental) cordilleras. The cordilleras were formed earlier in the Cenozoic era (the current geological era), as the Nazca Plate has subducted underneath the South American Plate and has raised the mountain range. In the south, the cordilleras are not well defined.

Quito, the capital city, is located in a high mountain valley on the foothills of the Pichincha. The town of Baños features hot springs swimming pools on the foothills of the Tungurahua in the Central Cordillera. The road from Baños to Puyo has long been known for its narrowness, curves and sheer drops (only one lane in some places, in one area, actually cut into the side of a cliff so that the cliff roofs over it). The most important east-west road across the Andes is the road from Quito to Lago Agrio, which is unpaved for most of its length yet is heavily traveled by tractor-trailers -- and the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline serves as the guardrail for long stretches of this road.

Notable Mountains and Volcanoes

* Chimborazo (6,267 m) extinct volcano, the furthest point from the earth's center
* Cotopaxi (5,897 m) one of the world's highest active volcanoes (Ojos del Salado, in Chile, at 6,887 is the highest active volcano in the world)
* Illiniza (5,248 m)
* Tungurahua (5,023 m) It is an active volcano in eruption since 1998 near Banios-Tunguragua
* Pichincha (4,784 m) volcano overlooking Quito

Partial, incomplete table of volcanoes in the north of the Ecuadorian Andes, from north to south

El Oriente (the East) Amazon Basin

Much of the Oriente is tropical moist broadleaf forest (Spanish: "la selva"), on the east slopes of the Andes Mountains and descending into the Amazon Basin, with strikingly different upland rainforest with steep, rugged ridges and cascading streams (can be seen around Puyo) and lowland rainforest. The oil fields are located in the Amazon basin, headquartered at Lago Agrio; some of the rainforest has been seriously damaged in this region and environmental degradation is severe, with catastrophic oil pollution in some areas. Some 38% of Ecuador's land is forested [] , and despite a 1.5% annual deforestation rate remains one of the most biodiverse locations on the planet. The Oriente is also home to a large number of Ecuador's indigenous groups, notably the lowland Quechua, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, and Cofán.

In addition, Ecuador still lays claim to a large area of lowland rainforest to the east of this region, although Peru invaded it years ago and has held it ever since.


Almost all of the rivers in Ecuador rise in the Sierra region and flow east toward the Amazon River or west toward the Pacific Ocean. The rivers rise from snowmelt at the edges of the snowcapped peaks or from the abundant precipitation that falls at higher elevations. In the Sierra region, the streams and rivers are narrow and flow rapidly over precipitous slopes. Rivers may slow and widen as they cross the hoyas yet become rapid again as they flow from the heights of the Andes to the lower elevations of the other regions. The highland rivers broaden as they enter the more level areas of the Costa and the Oriente.

In the Costa region, the Costa Externa has mostly intermittent rivers that are fed by constant rains from December through May and become empty riverbeds during the dry season. The few exceptions are the longer, perennial rivers that flow throughout the Costa Externa from the Costa Internal and the Sierra on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The Costa Internal, by contrast, is crossed by perennial rivers that may flood during the rainy season, sometimes forming swamps.

The Guayas River system, which flows southward to the Gulf of Guayaquil, constitutes the most important of the drainage systems in the Costa Internal. The Guayas River Basin, including land drained by its tributaries, is 40,000 square kilometers in area. The sixty-kilometer-long Guayas River forms just north of Guayaquil out of the confluence of the Babahoyo and Daule rivers. Briefly constricted at Guayaquil by hills, the Guayas widens south of the city and flows through a deltaic network of small islands and channels. At its mouth, the river forms a broad estuary with two channels around Puná Island, the deeper of which is used for navigation.

The second major Costa river system--the Esmeraldas--rises in the Hoya de Quito in the Sierra as the Guayllabamba River and flows westward to empty into the Pacific Ocean near the city of Esmeraldas. The Esmeraldas River is 320 kilometers long and has a 20,000-square-kilometer drainage basin.

Major rivers in the Oriente include the Pastaza, Napo, and Putumayo. The Pastaza is formed by the confluence of the Chambo and the Patate rivers, both of which rise in the Sierra. The Pastaza includes the Agoyan waterfall, which at sixty-one meters is the highest waterfall in Ecuador. The Napo rises near Mount Cotopaxi and is the major river used for transport in the Eastern lowlands. The Napo ranges in width from 500 to 1,800 meters. In its upper reaches, the Napo flows rapidly until the confluence with one of its major tributaries, the Coca River, where it slows and levels off. The Putumayo forms part of the border with Colombia. All of these rivers flow into the Amazon River. The Galápagos Islands have no significant rivers. Several of the larger islands, however, have freshwater springs.


Each region has different factors that affect its climate. The Costa is influenced primarily by proximity to warm or cool ocean currents. By contrast, climate in the Sierra varies more as a function of altitude. The Oriente has a fairly uniform climate that varies only slightly between the two subregions. Climate in the Galápagos Islands is both moderated by the ocean currents and affected by altitude. Throughout Ecuador variation in rainfall primarily determines seasons. Temperature is determined by altitude. With each ascent of 200 meters in altitude, temperature drops 1° C. This phenomenon is particularly significant in the Sierra.

The Costa and The Galapagos Islands

The Costa has a tropical climate. Temperatures for the region as a whole remain fairly constant, ranging from 23° C in the south to 26° C in the north. Although seasonal changes in temperature are not pronounced, the hottest period occurs during the rainy season, especially from February to April. Near Guayaquil, the coolest months are August and September. Rainfall in the Costa decreases from north to south, with vegetation changing from tropical rainforest in the north to tropical savannah to desert in the south.

Differences in temperature and rainfall in the Costa are caused by the Peruvian Current and periodic appearances of El Niño. The Peruvian Current, also formerly known as the Humboldt, is a cold ocean current that flows north along the coasts of Chile and Peru. At Cabo Blanco, where the Gulf of Guayaquil begins, the main current veers to the west; a branch continues northward to Cabo Pasado, in Manabí Province, where it also turns westward to merge with the main current near the Galápagos Islands. The cold water and air temperatures associated with the Peruvian Current inhibit rainfall along the coast, creating dry to arid conditions. This effect is greatest along the southern coast of Ecuador.

The El Niño occurs periodically every six or seven years. Starting in late December, a change in atmospheric pressure shifts ocean currents so that warm waters come closer to shore and displace the cold waters. During this time, air and water temperatures, tides, sea levels and wave heights, and relative humidity all are higher than usual. These conditions produce heavy rainfall that generally lasts until May in an area that normally experiences nothing more than a drizzle. The resulting flooding and landslides can be devastating.

When the Peruvian Current is dominant, the amount of precipitation along the coast varies from north to south, with levels ranging from 300 centimeters to 30 centimeters, respectively. Two rainy seasons in the northernmost part of the coast become a single season (December through June) not far south. Near Esmeraldas, average annual rainfall is 250 centimeters. The rainy season shortens farther south, lasting only from January to May at Guayaquil. Very little rainfall occurs on the end of the Santa Elena Peninsula west of Guayaquil. Arid conditions prevail on the border with Peru south of the Gulf of Guayaquil.

Separated from the effects of ocean currents by the Cordillera Costañera, the Costa Internal has a hot and humid climate. Temperatures can surpass 26° C, and the vegetation and cloud cover tend to retain and augment the heat. Rain is constant during the winter months of December through May, with the heaviest rainfall occurring in February and March.

The Sierra

Temperatures in the Sierra do not vary greatly on a seasonal basis; the hottest month averages 16° C and the coolest month, 13° C in the upper elevations. Diurnal temperatures, however, vary dramatically, from cold mornings to hot afternoons. The almost vertical sun and the rarefied air in the higher Sierra region allow the land to warm quickly during the day and lose heat quickly at night. Mornings typically are bright and sunny, whereas afternoons often are cloudy and rainy. In general, rainfall amounts are highest on exposed locations at lower altitudes. Rain also can vary on a local basis. Sheltered valleys normally receive 50 centimeters per year, whereas annual rainfall is 150 centimeters in Quito and can reach 250 centimeters on exposed slopes that catch rain-bearing winds. On a seasonal basis, the driest months are June through September.

Climate in the Sierra is divided into levels based on altitude. The tropical level--400 to 1,800 meters--has temperatures ranging from 20° C to 25° C and heavy precipitation. The subtropical level-- 1,800 to 2,500 meters--has temperatures from 15° C to 20° C and moderate precipitation. The temperate level--2,500 to 3,200 meters- -has a year-round temperature in the range of 10° C to 15° C and an annual rainfall of 100 centimeters. The temperate level experiences rainstorms, hailstorms, and fog. Winter, or the rainy season, lasts from January through June, and the dry season or summer from July through December. Most rain falls in April. There also is a short rainy period in early October caused by moisture penetrating the Sierra from the Oriente. Quito and most other populated areas in the Sierra are located at this temperate level. The cold level extends from the temperate zone to 4,650 meters. Here, average temperatures are 3° C to 9° C, and the precipitation often appears in the form of rain, hail, and thick fog. Above 4,650 meters is the frozen level, where peaks are constantly capped with snow and ice, and temperatures range from below zero to 3° C. Precipitation frequently is in the form of snow, fog, and rain.

The Oriente/Amazon Basin

The Eastern lowlands in the Oriente experience an equatorial climate. Rainfall is abundant, especially in the Andean piedmont, sometimes exceeding 500 centimeters per year. Temperatures average 25° C in the western parts of this region. The jungle-covered plains of the Eastern lowlands register high levels of rainfall and temperatures surpassing 28° C.

Being located on the equator, the Galápagos Islands would have an equatorial climate were it not for the modifying effects of the Peruvian Current. Instead, climate on the islands follows a pattern more like that of the Sierra than the Costa. At sea level, the land is desertlike with temperatures of 21° C. The eight summer months experience no precipitation, whereas the winter months of January through April have some fog and drizzle. Above sea level to an altitude of 450 meters, the islands have a mixture of tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates. In general, temperatures are around 17° C. There is constant fog and drizzle in the summer and rain in the winter. The cold level above 450 meters has temperatures below 14° C. It is cool along the tropical coast.

Elevation extremes

* lowest point: Pacific Ocean 0 m
* highest point: Chimborazo 6,267 m

Natural resources

petroleum, fish, timber, hydropower

Land use

* arable land: 6%
* permanent crops: 5%
* permanent pastures: 18%
* forests and woodland: 56%
* other: 15% (1993 est.)

Irrigated land

8,650 km² (2003 est.)Leading Banana Exporter

Natural hazards

frequent earthquakes, landslides, volcanic activity; periodic droughts and floods

Environment - current issues

deforestation; soil erosion; desertification; water pollution; pollution from oil production wastes

Environment - international agreements

: party to: Antarctic Treaty, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, Whaling : signed, but not ratified: Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol

Geography - note

Cotopaxi in the Andes is the second highest active volcano in the world


* [ Library of Congress, Country Studies]
* "CIA World Factbook"

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