Ecuador is a nation of extremes, a nexus of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, a link between the Old and New worlds. Centuries of Inca, Andean, and Amazonian indigenous civilization yielded to Spanish colonial rule, which was followed by independence; modernization; and, most recently, decades of tumultuous government. All of which have given Ecuador's economy, politics, crafts, architecture, languages, and religious customs one primary trait: profound variety. Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, but, with nearly 14 million residents, it's home to a diverse population that includes a sizable number of Amerindian, white, black, and mestizo people.

For travelers, all this variety translates into myriad opportunities to explore and enjoy this multifaceted country. During a visit here, you'll have ample and easy access to hefty doses of awe and adventure, whether floating down the Amazon in a dugout canoe; touring through colonial churches or plazas; hiking along snowcapped volcanic peaks or in dense jungles; dodging piranhas or anacondas; searching for howler monkeys in the rainforest or for giant condors soaring above the Andes; learning Quichua in a Quiteño language school (or listening to it spoken in a mountainous village near Riobamba); or viewing the woodcarvings, paintings, Panama hats, woven tapestries, and clothing of contemporary indigenous craftspeople or the stone temples, carvings, and fortresses of ancient Inca empires.

And of course, there are the Galápagos Islands. Some 1,000km (621 miles) off the country's Pacific coast, the islands are still home to the emblematic and endemic giant Galápagos tortoises that were around when Charles Darwin arrived here, in 1831. Among other species that call the Galápagos home are marine and land iguanas, sea lions, albatrosses, and the famous blue-footed boobies. It's not surprising that this magical archipelago inspired a scientific theory that would change how human beings understand the natural world.

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