Quito enjoys a fair share of fame. Its elevation of 9,200 feet makes it the second highest administrative capital city (after La Paz, Bolivia) and the highest legal capital in the world. It is also the only capital located directly beneath an active volcano, Pichincha, which erupted as recently as 2006, sprinkling ash over the city and disrupting activities, including closure of the international airport. Old town Quito, one of the largest, best-preserved historic districts in the world, was selected by UNESCO as one of the first two World Heritage Sites in 1978. Even its reputation as a dangerous, crime-ridden city imbues it with a certain notoriety. But it was Quito’s distinction as the “Mitad del Mundo” – the Middle of the World – that most fascinated me.
In 1736, French scientists set out to determine the exact point on the globe that was located midway between the north and south poles. This was no easy feat, since so much of “middle earth” is ocean, swamps, and jungle. Their search for dry land led them to Ecuador, a short distance from present day Quito, where they established La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World), also known as the Linea Equatorial or Equator. Two hundred years later, in 1936, a monument was erected on the spot and a line painted on the ground to mark the Equator, a site which is today one of the top tourist destinations in the country.
Each year, thousands of tourists straddle this line, believing they have one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere. Many have no idea that actual Equator runs through the middle of a pre-Inca ruin located approximately 1,000 feet to the north of the monument, a fact confirmed with the development of satellite Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that allowed for more accurate mathematical calculations.
Huffing and puffing from lack of oxygen in Quito’s thin air, I climbed the hilly streets to city parks, visited spectacular Gothic and gilt-covered churches, and wandered around old town on a mission to see every historic building, whether artfully restored or still crumbling. At 11 a.m. on Monday morning I was front and center at the Presidential Palace as Ecuador’s President Correa stepped to the balcony to acknowledge the weekly Changing of the Guard ceremony. But I just couldn’t convince myself to pay admission to visit La Mitad del Mundo, especially since I’d crossed the Equator four times during my cruise around the Galapagos Islands.
Days later I hopped an eastbound bus and descended from the chilly mountaintop to the town of Lago Agrio, gateway to Ecuador’s steamy Amazon jungle. In Cuyabeno National Park I followed my guide down a narrow dirt path bracketed by dense vegetation until he stopped aside a low mound of earth. “You’re standing on the Equator,” he announced.
There was no monument to mark this spot deep in the tropical rainforest, no throngs of noisy tourists. Wild pigs screamed in the distance and birds squawked from hidden treetop perches as I squatted down and reverently touched the middle of the earth – the real Equator.