Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador…..Ecuador is the Spanish word for equator, which traverses the country. The equator passes through thirteen different nationalities, but its namesake seems to be the most cherished spot to experience the dividing line. Easy access is the major driver of this popularity, furthered by the bonus of offering the highest elevation for our planet’s bisection. Thus we headed to Intiñan Solar Museum, just south of Quito, the morning after landing in Ecuador. But before I describe our selection, please allow me to introduce every equatorial option.
Three places in Ecuador proclaim the opportunity to simultaneously place a foot in two of the Earth’s hemispheres: Intiñan Solar Museum; Mitad del Mundo, and; Quitsato Sundial. Most famous is Mitad del Mundo, combining the best history and best commemoration. Back in 1736 a French expedition identified this location as the exact equator. Development of more accurate measures would ultimately conclude the site is off the mark by 240 meters / 800 feet. Nonetheless, that stake in the ground carries some carryover. An impressive monument was erected in 1936 (before the error was confirmed) and fabulously rebuilt in 1982. Despite the error being widely acknowledged, most selfies with folks straddling two hemispheres are snapped here. Alas, both feet are planted in the southern hemisphere.
The world becomes increasingly precise and even Intiñan Solar Museum, built in 1960, is now claimed to be slightly off: though considerably closer than Mitad del Mundo. If precision is your goal, the Quitsato Sundial is where you should head. The most recent equatorial attraction, raised in 2006, is a ten meter pole deposited directly on the dividing line. This location was determined by GPS and the margin of error has been calculated as no greater than one millimeter!
Our choice was Intiñan Solar Museum, which I enjoyed despite a mixture of pros and cons. Oddly enough, Intiñan Solar Museum’s strongest attribute was its wealth of non-equatorial exhibits. This was our first day in an unfamiliar destination, so a broad introduction to all things Ecuador was most welcome. Visits are conducted by a guide (tours offered in Spanish and English) who leads your group past a diverse collection that is simultaneously educational and entertaining.
Even though I researched Ecuador before our trip, I unearthed scant information about native tribes. My naïve mind associated the area with the Inca, but I would be enlightened these were latecomers – conquerors who only ruled the region for fifty years before Spaniards came on stage. At Intiñan Solar Museum we learned customs of the Woaranis and Shuar while proceeding through replicas of their native dwellings.
The tour also enlightened me about cuy, at the top of my list to experience in Ecuador. Cuy is a traditional meal of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia…more commonly known as guinea pig. My ignorance was showing again, because I was oblivious to anything about cuy beyond seeing pictures of friends devouring it during their journeys to South America. One native hut included a small pen inside with live guinea pigs and we were informed cuy was a delicacy: a stock would be maintained indoors so the critters were readily available for special occasions or when a distinguished visitor showed up. What I assumed to be common grub was actually fine dining.
A display is also devoted to shrunken heads, perhaps the most notorious tradition of Amazon tribes. This exhibit was tastefully presented to reveal the arduous process of removing the skull, sewing lips shut, and other practices intended to capture the soul and prevent the victim from avenging its murder. I found this a fascinating reminder that Ecuador involves more slicing and dicing than just cutting the planet in two halves.
Our cultural meander was not too long and soon we found ourselves standing smack dab on the equator (well, the line they marked as the equator). Here we were led through a number of challenges and demonstrations to underscore the line’s significance. Perhaps the best known of these is balancing an egg on the head of a nail. Two stations enabled everyone on the tour to attempt reaching equilibrium and my assessment was the a little less than half succeeded. Unfortunately the egg gave our entourage a shell of a time and we went 0-for-3. My lame excuse was being polite: I felt uncomfortable keeping others waiting and abandoned my attempt quickly. On the bright side I was accompanied by sufficient other failures to reveal it was not a set-up with success practically guaranteed.
There were several other exercises that were fun without being terribly impressive before an amazing grand finale. This was the demonstration of the Coriolis Effect. Are you familiar with this natural wonder? Only vaguely aware of the concept asserting that toilets swirl to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the south, I was surprised to encounter the principle here. However, our guide had a tub and a small bucket of water with leaves floating in it. She reiterated the right-left dichotomy and after placing the tub directly on the equator, emptied the bucket. The water and leaves whooshed straight down the drain. Relocating the tub into the northern hemisphere, perhaps two meters / eight feet away, the bucket was dumped again and this time the leaves swirled around towards the right. When the tub was lugged the same distance south of the line you won’t be surprised to learn the experiment resulted in left swirling leaves.
Wow. As a travel fan who marvels at the surprises of our planet, the Coriolis presentation floored me. Almost immediately afterwards, however, doubt crept in. In the deep recesses of my memory were traces of a notion the Coriolis Effect was not that powerful and the reversal of flushing toilet water untrue. Once I got home I investigated and confirmed suspicions: the Coriolis Effect is real, but not overwhelming. The impacts are only brought to life by big events like hurricanes and trade winds. Because the Coriolis Effect results from the Earth’s rotation, the impact becomes more pronounced as one nears the poles. My astonishment was misplaced and the museum’s pretending to validate Coriolis by edging north or south a few feet was clearly a sham.
While I remain intrigued how they managed to pull the stunt off, I am disappointed they were not honest and state this was merely an illustration. Fortunately this minor transgression is my only con about Intiñan Solar Museum and now that you are forewarned, I recommend this venue as a splendid way to experience the equator in Ecuador. Without visiting the alternatives, I am confident you will have an engaging time, and more importantly, receive a solid introduction to the country. And when you sample some cuy, remember you are partaking a gourmet meal!