Ecuador is a patchwork of indigenous communities, including people of colonial Spanish origins and the descendants of African slaves.
Its capital, Quito, once a part of the Inca empire, has some of the best-preserved early colonial architecture on the continent.
Traditionally a farming country, Ecuador’s economy was transformed after the 1960s by the growth of industry and the discovery of oil. There was rapid growth and progress in health, education and housing.
But by the end of the 20th century a combination of factors, including falling oil prices and damage caused by the weather phenomenon El Nino, had driven the economy into recession.
Inflation, which had become the highest in the region, led the government to replace the national currency with the US dollar in an effort to curtail it.
Not all Ecuadorans have benefited equally from oil revenues. The traditionally dominant Spanish-descended elite gained far more than indigenous peoples and those of mixed descent.
Steps to stabilise the economy, such as austerity measures and privatisation, have generated widespread unrest, particularly among the indigenous poor.
For a small country, Ecuador has many faces. They include Andean peaks, tropical rainforests and – 1,000 km (600 miles) off the coast – the volcanic Galapagos Islands, home to the animals and birds whose evolutionary adaptations shaped Charles Darwin’s theories.
Source: BBC World Country Profiles (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/country_profiles/default.stm)