A line that splits the Earth

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 5 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

Lines drawn by men, lines drawn by nature

I remember my school days back in India. Rather than the individual desks that you find in North American schools, our classrooms were filled with large wooden desks that two (or sometimes three) students shared. Very collectivist and cooperative, I know, but often not as idealised as it sounds. You see, there were times when you had to share your desk with a total jerk, who was either very bubbly and hyper-distracting, or was someone who simply didn’t care about the virtues of sharing. At such times, territorial students, me included, made ingenious use of the compass, an instrument used in geometry class to draw circles and arcs, to make an incision in the wooden surface of the desk, thereby drawing a line that marked a boundary, a separation between my and my annoying neighbour’s desktop. If a stray pencil, from the politically hyper neighbour’s territory, had the nerve to venture into mine, I reserved the right to flick it away to the corner of the classroom using my index finger and thumb as if it were a striker on a Carrom board. Too bad so sad, that’s how we retaliate, or atleast we did until the history class on Mahatma Gandhi started…

Speaking of lines, you might know that the Equator is a line, we call it the zero degree latitude, that is identified by nature, not by man, separating (or connecting) the northern and the southern hemispheres, just as nature reveals other latitudes such as the Tropic of Cancer or the Antarctic circle. At the Equator, Earth’s surface is at a maximum distance from its centre, since the Earth is elliptical not spherical, so technically you would weigh 0.5% less than your weight at the north pole, a factoid that may be of particular interest to those are overly concerned about these measurements. The equator is also an excellent place to launch spacecrafts, due to its fastest rotation, and for some reason, alien conspiracy theories are abundant around the equatorial band (±23.5º). Why not? If this is the best place to launch rockets, maybe its also the perfect place to land, just saying!

The equator passes through Ecuador, Colombia, Brasil, São Tomé and Príncipe, Gabon, Congo, D R Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia and Indonesia. However, according to my Ecuadorean friends, the Equator is best accessed from Ecuador, sans all the rainforests and politically unstable economies (not my words), so I was very excited to visit this geographically significant point in the best country to see it from.

↑ Sun casting it shadow at 10am. Being cloudy, the contrast was not enough…

Equatorial attractions

Quito, the UNESCO world heritage capital of Ecuador, is quite close to the Equator and a very convenient place to visit the dividing line. There are many places in Ecuador to see the Equator, such as the Galapagos islands or the Pacific coast on mainland, but this article is focused on two sites near Quito towards the north:

1. Mitad del Mundo
The “Mitad del Mundo” is a well established, extremely accessible and a very popular tourist destination. However, sorry to ruin your excitement, this site is not on equator. It was incorrectly built here by European architects while suggestions from the Indigenous people, who were pointing towards another site their ancestors had marked hundreds of years ago, were ignored. Today with GPS technology, its is possible to pinpoint the location of Ecuador and guess what, the native cultures in Ecuador had already mapped it precisely.

To reach this popular, albeit inaccurate, tourist location at the equator, take a bus from the Quitumbe bus terminal (all buses north of Quito depart from here) or organize a tour with one of the many travel agencies in Quito. There is a reason to go here, to visit the excellent ethnographic museum and the new Intiñan Solar Museum, besides taking cheesy pictures.

But since I didn’t travel several hundred kilometers only to end up at an “approximately correct” site, I had to put extra efforts to checkout the real Equator.

2. Quitsato Mitad del Mundo

↑ Sundial at the “correct” equator

Numerous guidebooks mention this “new” place but it is surprising how few people know or visit this location compared to the site above. You may be shocked to see an absolute absence of souvenir and knickknack stands, which we all know are a better measure of a site’s popularity than any lists and honours, as a lone path leads you from the highway to the monument. It’s kinda disillusioning to see that the monument, although accurate, is not as “flashy” as the one above, but merely a sundial with a pillar in the middle. A very friendly chico was working at this location and regardless of the fact that there was nobody else visiting but me, he gave me a full explanation about the organisation, the site and its significance and various maps, charts and “ancient” pictures. I visited the place on September 16, close to the day of Equinox, and the sun rewarded me by casting a graceful shadow almost exactly on the central axis thereby marking the equator.

To reach this place, hop on a bus to Cayambe (every 45 minutes) from Quito’s bus terminal and ask to be let off at Mitad del Mundo. The bus driver will know, but as you might have discovered from travelling in Latin America, it is a useful habit to remind the driver every now and then. On the right side of the highway going north, there is a sign for Quitsato Mitad del Mundo.

↑ Tear yourself between two hemispheres. Go here and get it right.

To conclude…

Standing on the Equator with one foot in the north and the other in the south hemisphere, besides checking an item off my list, somehow reminded me of my childhood in school. Equator is the biggest line ever drawn to identify two regions of the earth, however its an imaginary line and stray pencils from either side would, I hope, be treated kindly.

Which geographically significant places have you travelled to and how did it feel like?

[Photo of Mitad del Mundo: Expat Bob]

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 5 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery