The equator makes its way through a number of countries on its route around the world, but only one of those countries uses the equator as its actual name. What’s more, that country, Ecuador, even has a theme park devoted to it, and to an equatorial expedition so strange and colourful it gives The Pirates of the Caribbean a run for its money.
On my recent visit to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, I took a trip to the equator — that is, the park, called La Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, to see it once again. I had been there on my previous visit, 10 years before, and while I found the neighbourhood amazingly commercialized, the site itself was pretty much the same.
The centrepiece of La Mitad del Mundo is a 30-metre (100-foot) monument through which runs a yellow line representing the equator. And just like 10 years ago, I saw tourists from all over the world rushing to have their pictures taken straddling the line, with the northern hemisphere on one side and the southern on the other. Another thing hasn’t changed, either — they’re still fooling themselves. That line isn’t actually on the equator: the real one runs through the Museo Solar Inti Nan, a few metres down the road.
There are ethnographic exhibits inside the monument, and a panoramic view from the top. The grounds also feature pavilions from France and Quito, as well as a little planetarium, a children’s area and many tourist shops and restaurants.
The other big feature in the park is a stone footpath lined with busts of a number of men (photo at top). They are scientists, and their story is, in its own way, just as fascinating as those of the polar explorers, or Stanley and Doctor Livingston.
In 1735 the French Academy of Sciences sent a team of investigators to Ecuador, then part of Peru, in order to solve the hottest issue of the day. It was called the Geodesic Mission to the Equator, and its goal was not to find the equator, as you’d think: that was already known. It was to discover the actual shape of the earth. Was it bigger in the middle and flattened at the ends, as Newton thought, or oval and more pointed at the ends, as the followers of Descartes insisted?
This wasn’t an idle debate. Ships sailing the great oceans often missed their destinations because they couldn’t accurately determine their latitude and longitude. Knowing the real shape of the earth could allow the charts to be redrawn so they could plot an accurate course.
The French assembled a diverse team for this trip to the equator: there were scientists and astronomers, technicians and surgeons, plus an adventurer named Charles-Marie de La Condamine, a flamboyant figure whose exploits were to make him a folk hero. They were accompanied by two Spanish officers, since the mission would travel through colonies owned by Spain.
Almost immediately, infighting broke out. The group’s leader, Louis Godin, spent the expedition’s money like water and soon clashed with the other scientists. By the time they got to southern Ecuador, La Condamine and another scientist disembarked and went their own way.
La Condamine then set out on his own for Quito without a guide, travelling hundreds of kilometres through uncharted jungle and mountain passes . At one point he was lost in the jungle for days, living on whatever fruit he could find. Along the way, he found natives collecting sticky white sap from the native trees. It was rubber. He became the first European to see it, and to introduce it to the Old World.
Things didn’t improve for the expedition when the members all reached Quito. The local governor suspected the Frenchmen were smugglers and refused them the funding they had been promised. Tensions escalated, coming to a head when local militia men attacked one of the Spanish officers, who wounded one of them fatally.
Nevertheless, the expedition set about its mission: surveying a series of triangles from a point near Quito (now the city’s new airport) to a spot near the city of Cuenca, in the south. By accurately measuring this distance and using the stars to pinpoint their position, they could measure the length of one degree of latitude. Comparing it with a similar measurement from Northern Europe would prove the shape of the earth.
But it was a gruelling task, which involved working in equatorial heat and climbing a number of live volcanoes. They scaled snow-covered peaks in hostile weather, huddling in tents until the clouds cleared enough to do their surveying. Some of them got sick, they ran out of money repeatedly, their instruments were continually lost or broken in transit, and one of the surgeons started acting erratically and was killed by an angry mob at a bullfight.
Along the way, La Condamine had two illegitimate daughters, acted as lawyer in a number of law suits, and made the first real observation of the cinchona shrub (seen here), whose bark yields quinine, used to cure malaria. His findings helped make it a reliable medicine for the first time.
After almost a decade, the scientists completed their mission and most of them returned home (La Condamine, characteristically, navigated the length of the Amazon on the way). And mankind’s view of the planet we live on was changed forever.
La Mitad del Mundo is worth seeing once if you’re visiting Quito. But to make a day of it, I signed up for a short tour to the nearby Pululahua volcano, a more impressive sight. Bumping up a steep road, we came to a lookout and peered over to see what truly looked like Middle Earth.
Below, in the crater of an ancient volcano, lay a four-kilometre-wide valley whose green fields were continually shadowed by wispy clouds. In fact, the clouds cover the valley for a good part of each day, and nourish the vegetation on the sides of the bowl, like a cloud forest.
Down below, the villagers live a life of near-isolation: the only roads lead through difficult mountain passes, so most of the goods they bring to market each week have to be carried up the 300-metre (1,000-foot) crater wall on a long, steep foot path. If life in the cloud valley intrigues you, it’s possible to sample it for yourself: there’s a hotel in the village. Only problem is, you have to carry your bags all the way down and back up again.
Life in the Pululahua crater seems almost idyllic, and maybe it is. However, nothing’s perfect: the island of rock in the middle of the crater (seen at left in the photo above) is still active, and one day it may erupt. Hopefully, it won’t be soon.
On the way back, I stopped off at Inti Nan, where pathways lead through a variety of interesting cultural exhibits showing the life of Ecuador’s native people, from Quechua huts to Amazonian artifacts and pre-Incan burials. There are totem poles, a demonstration of native weaving, and even some folk dancing.
And the equator: while the equator line at La Mitad del Mundo is strictly for show, the one at Inti Nan is supposedly real. And to prove it, the tour guide pulled out a small sink and did a little demonstration. First, he poured water down the drain right above the equator line: it flowed straight down, without swirling around the sink.
He moved the sink the south side of the line and poured the water: it swirled. Then the north side of the line, and sure enough, it swirled in the opposite direction.
I don’t know how real the demonstration was, but now and then you have to believe something, So while the members of the Geodesic Mission to the Equator would have wanted more scientific proof, I choose to believe this was the real equator. So I did what any right-minded tourist would do, and here’s my proof.
Last note: If you’d like to read the full story of the Geodesic Mission and its trip to the equator, you can find a detailed account in Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World, by Larrie D. Ferreiro. It’s available at Amazon.