Two distinct chains of mountains form Ecuador’s Andean highlands, with lush green valleys nestled in the middle. Alexander von Humbolt, one of the great explorers who visited Ecuador in the 19th Century described it as the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ with the valleys flanked on either side by both active and extinct volcanoes and snow-capped mountains, including the imposing Chimborazo Volcano (6310m) and Cotopaxi Volcano (5890 m), the highest active volcano in the world.
Humbolt used what he saw in his travels through Ecuador’s Andes to develop his theory of altitudinal bands, in which he systematically explained how in a similar way that vegetation can change predictably with latitude, it also differs systematically with altitude. A vertical assent of 600 meters, is essentially equivalent to a trek north of 1000 km, which helps explain some of the amazing diversity of species, and also how you can literally see the vegetation changing before your eyes in some train and road journeys in Ecuador that involve a rapid change in altitude, such as that to the cloud forest in Mindo from Quito, or from Cuenca to the pacific coast were the literally vegetation changes before your eyes as you travel. In Ecuador due to the small size of the country these dramatic changes in climate and vegetation are much more marked than in other places due to the relatively small distances between them.
Glaciers and Bedrock
Above the permanent snowline of Ecuador’s Andes, life is mostly limited to small invertebrates that feed only on algae and bacteria which grow in the snow and ice. Only few plants and few large animals are able to survive in these inhospitable habitats. Some birds, like the iconic bird of the Andes, the Condor, have unique regulatory mechanisms which allow them to maintain oxygen delivery to the brain contributing to their tolerance to extreme altitude.
4800 – 3500 Meters
These ecosystems constitute the tropical alpine vegetation of the Andes. They are unique to the Andean mountains, with their distinct flora and fauna species, many of which are not found in any other high alpine regions of the world. The paramos form a discontinuous belt that stretches from northern Peru over Ecuador and Colombia to Venezuela and covers about 35,000 km2. Ecuador accounts for the largest area of Paramo – at 51% of this area.
Montane and Cloud forests
3500 – 1000 Meters
These beautiful and rare forests are formed where due to the moisture rising from the Pacific and Amazonian lowlands, which means these forests are enshrouded in mist for at least part of each day. This region of steep terrain is especially rich in flowering plants like orchids and bromeliads as well as birds and frogs whose diversity peaks at these intermediate altitudes. According to Birdlife international, the Tropical Andes contain around 2780 bird species which represents 28% of the bird species in the world most of which are found in this altitudinal band.
The Ecuadorean lowlands are comprised of a huge variety of ecosystems, the Amazon which is characterised by warm temperatures and abundant and constant rainfall whilst the Pacific coastal region is characterized by a steep gradient of annual rainfall.