Ecuador is located on the western (Pacific) side of South America. It has a land mass of 27,840 km2.
The equator runs through the Galápagos islands and mainland Ecuador so the whole country is in the tropics. However there are four distinct physical regions, the isolated Galápagos archipelago and on the mainland, the Costa (coastal region), the Sierra (highland region), and the Oriente (eastern region) as they are known in Ecuador.
The sierra is the highest part of the Ecuadorian Andes, which form a central vertical belt through the country. In the north there are two high ranges divided by a central valley known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes due to the many snow-capped peaks which line the way. You can even find snow on the equator. The valley is densely populated and cleared for agriculture. To the south the cordilleras give way to a plateau (el Austro) at three thousand metres in places.
Half the population live in the highlands and the area is densely populated, despite the altitude. Land around the foothills of the volcanoes is divided into a patchwork of cultivated fields. On the higher parts where little can grow there is moorland (páramo), often characterised by rocky outcrops, beautiful lakes and fierce winds.
The mountains fall away for many kilometres on either side of the highlands down to the coast or Amazon. Water winds down through this area from the páramo (and some glaciers) to feed the lowland rivers. On the lower slopes, known as the sub-trópico, human activity is mixed with some wilder and incredibly diverse areas such as cloud forests which contain great diversity of life and many beautiful waterfalls.
Although the term costa (coast) is often used to refer to the whole region, this area comprises the long coastline and a agricultural belt in the coastal plain and lowlands crossed by many rivers meandering to the Pacific Ocean. A few areas of dry and wet forest remain but deforestation continues at a rapid pace.
Along the coastline you can find a mix of sandy beaches, mangrove swamp and shrimp farms.
Close to the Andes, the lowlands provide a strip of fertile land ideal for agriculture. Bananas, cacao and rice are cultivated along with many other tropical fruits such as pineapples, passion fruit and papaya.
There are two main river basins. In the south the Babahoyo and Daule rivers receive water from many tributaries as they wind through the lowlands and meet at Guayaquil to form the Río Guayas which only flows for another 60 kilometres but is the widest river on the Pacific Coast of the continent and feeds a rich delta. In the north a large network of rivers run from the Andes into tropical forest and feed the Río Esmeraldas which reaches the Pacific at the port of the same name.
In the east of the country the mountains fall away into the vast Amazon basin. A small but highly diverse part of this area is in Ecuadorian territory. A lot of primary rainforest remains but a lot has also been cleared for human settlement and oil and mining activities.
Due to its isolation, this archipelago of 13 volcanic islands has developed in a unique way. Thus you can find many endemic species of plants and animals.
Ecuador´s regions have distinctly different climates. There are not four seasons, rather a wet and dry season which occur in different regions at different times of the year.
The climate is generally hot and humid. January to April is the wet season in the region. It doesn´t rain every day but when it does it is torrential. However it is also the period when the sea is warmest and the sky is clearest at the beach. Temperatures exceed 30°C. Between May and December the coast can be overcast and cool, particularly along the Ruta del Sol. While this isn´t what you want at the beach, such days are a great relief in cities such as Guayaquil.
June to December are generally the driest, warmest months but it could still rain at any time. It is generally clear and sunny in the morning and sometimes rains in the afternoon so try to get up early. Although temperatures are lower due to altitude, you can definitely feel the heat of the sun when it is shining. At night it will definitely be cool.
In the lowlands the temperatures increase as does the rain.
This region is consistently warm and humid. It can rain most days in the year. November to February is drier.
From July to December it is usually dry but overcast whereas from January to June it is generally hot and sunny but with more showers. Temperatures are between 25 and 30 degrees throughout the year.
What determines climate patterns?
The coast receives moist air in winter, brought by the warm ecuatorial current which comes down the coast from Central America and moves off towards the Galapagos. In summer the colder Humboldt current brings dry air from the south and extends up to the province of Manabi before moving off towards the Galapagos. In this period there is little rainfall. This current is nutrient-rich and important for fish.
This climatic pattern occurs between every three and seven years in the Pacific ocean. The sea temperature is warmer than usual and there is high surface air pressure. Warm air rises in the western Pacific and moves west, bringing heavy rains to the west coast of South America, including Ecuador. The rains frequently cause widespread flooding and damage. The lack of cold, nutrient-rich water in the ocean can also devastate fish populations. El Niño conditions are usually first observed in South America around Christmas time, hence the name, which refers to the baby Jesus.
The opposite pattern, La Niña occurs when the cold water area in the eastern Pacific intensifies and cold, dry winds blow west, causing drought along the coast.
These effects can extend to the Andes and even the Amazon regions of the country when the conditions are extreme.