I have a list of people, places and things I must see around the world before I die. I didn’t come up with this list overnight or because of some book I read. This list has been kicking around in my head for as long as I can remember. It’s the list that pops into my constantly shifting brain when I find myself daydreaming. Among some of these places, the Egyptian pyramids. The Taj Mahal. The Great Barrier Reef. Singapore. The Arctic Circle. The Amazon. Brazil. Buenos Aires. The Serengeti. Stonehenge. On and on.
I have traveled to every continent of the world, except Australia and Antarctica – and have already checked off from my list many places and things to do, such as climbing the Great Wall of China or pretending to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Yesterday, however, had I not done my research, I would have left Ecuador thinking that I had stood in the middle of the world – on the imaginary line known as the Equator – the middle of the world.
One of my lifetime goals was to visit the Equator and stand simultaneously in the northern and southern hemispheres – right on the Equatorial line that divides the planet into the two hemispheres. But in this world, things aren’t always so simple.
When in 1743 scientists set out to establish the line that divides the Earth into the northern and southern hemispheres, they came pretty close, but they were off by almost 1,000 feet, 20th Century scientists using modern-day technology discovered. Using G.P.S. and other mapping tools, they learned that the middle of the Earth was actually several feet north of where it was originally designated by the 18th Century scientists. So the Equatorial line shifted (does anybody remember reading this important bit of news?), rendering markers and grand monuments marking the spot off base, including the permanent and elaborate Mitad del Mundo – Middle of The World Monument in San Antonio de Pinchincha, located about an hour and two bus rides from the center of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. Still today, thousands of people visit the monument and snap pictures with their feet straddling the orange line painted from the base of the monument through the plaza. Little do most of them realize they are not actually standing in the two hemispheres, just in the Southern Hemisphere. To stand in the two hemispheres in Ecuador, you must exit the Middle of The World village built around the monument to cater to tourists and take a five minute walk north along a dirt road. There you will see perched on a hill the Intiñan Museum. The museum, which features tribal artifacts and replicas and information about local tribes, some that have no contact with the modern world, has been around since the 1960s. Its original focus was largely local flora and fauna and preservation of the country’s fragile ecosystem. But the museum struck gold when it was determined that the actual Equatorial line runs through its property. So, of course, museum officials rushed to capitalize on that fact ($$$$) and added Equator exhibits, experiments, and a tour. They also painted their own line on the ground that marks the Equator. They charge an admission fee of $3 for the pleasure.
Yet, despite the change, not many visitors know that the Equator is now more than 900 feet away from where X – the Middle of The World Monument – marks the original spot. So they come, snap pictures and leave thinking they stood on the Equator. How sad when they get home and learn they’ve traveled thousands of miles and didn’t experience the real thing.
Now, it is completely accurate to refer to the spot where the monument stands as the “historic” or “old” Equator, as Ecuador tourism officials do, but they do it ever so hushed. They’ve invested millions of dollars building the monument and town around it – with restaurants and gift shops, and imagine what that would do to yearly visits and the bottom line if people decided to go to private Intiñan Museum instead of the government-run monument and complex? That frankly will never happen because the monument and village that doubles as a tourist center are still worthwhile. The grounds are simply beautiful.
I asked a tour guide at Intiñan how the museum coexists with the nearby better-known Middle Of The World Monument and the other museums and businesses that depend on tourists for their survival. She said it’s a peaceful coexistence and that the Middle of The World Monument still has its place, given it commemorates the daunting achievement of the 18th Century scientists from France, Spain and Ecuador who braved the Amazon and tough conditions to find the planet’s middle.
By the way, to confuse visitors even more, there are several other places in Ecuador where you can supposedly stand on the Equatorial line. One them is in a town called Calacalí.
Calacalí, where indigenous people centuries ago had somehow established they had found the middle of the Earth, brags that the Equator runs through the town. To honor the ancients, in 1979 a smaller monument that stood since the 1930s to mark the Equator, was moved west to Calacalí. The current, much larger replacement was built between 1979 and 1982. But in Calacalí, the original monument is also not where it should be. The Equator through that town is actually closer to the town square. So if you go to Calacalí looking to take pictures at that monument know that you are not at the Equator, you will have to go a few steps further.
Meanwhile, Intiñan is modest compared to the grand, beautifully laid-out Middle Of The World Monument compound in Pichincha. But Intiñan is well-worth the $3 admission. And you will then be able to say you actually, really, truly stood in the middle of the world, like I did. 🙂