March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
Sign up for our free newsletter to receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.
February 7, 2013
I left my baggage at a hostel in central Cuenca and rode east, on a small quiet highway that climbed into the beautiful green hills and would eventually lead over a small mountain range and straight down into the Amazon rainforest. My goal for the day was to go as far as the pass and look down toward the world’s greatest river basin, or the fog blanket upon it–but I didn’t get that far. About 10 miles out of town, in the quiet farm country, as I passed a small home on the left side of the road, a pair of dogs came charging from the front yard. This was nothing new; many dogs are pests and nuisances to cyclists here. But when one dog didn’t stop at the usual four-to-five-foot buffer distance and, instead, came right in and sank its teeth into my ankle, I yelled out and stepped off my bike, astonished I’d actually been bitten–the second dog bite of my life. The dog let go and scurried down the road while a woman came rushing from the home, yelling at the thing–her family’s best friend, I’m sure.
“Control your dog!” I snapped at her, rolling up to the dirt bank leading from the road to into their yard and staring at the woman as fiercely as I could. I pulled down my sock to have a look at my heel. “There’s blood! Does your dog have a rabies vaccination?”
The woman said yes.
“Do you have papers or documentation?” I asked.
She said yes. I asked if I could see the papers. She said they were lost. Her teenage girls had begun to laugh and giggle at me, and the grandmother who had come out of the house also wore the shadow of a smirk on her face. Nobody apologized or asked if I needed help.
I requested alcohol to clean my wound, which was oozing blood, and after the two women haggled nervously for a minute, I lost my patience and rolled back the way I had come. I needed to get medical attention. One hundred yards down the road, the same dog–a brown-and-white mongrel with pointed ears and wicked eyes–came at me again. I picked up a hunk of cement and threw, just missing the animal as it fled into the brush. The family sullenly watched the entire exchange. I rolled on.
The presence of dogs in Ecuador, as in all developing nations, baffles me. They’re often no better than rats, far less useful than goats and meaner by miles than pigs–yet the people feed them and maintain the dogs’ health just enough to keep them alive. They sport bleeding bald spots and rib cages like washboards, and about 50 percent cannot resist the urge to chase people on bicycles. Most dogs here don’t seem to be strays. That is, they usually appear to belong to a particular household–but why? Do people love these dogs? Name them Max? I doubt it.
As an experienced cycle tourist, I have a mixed relationship with dogs. I have loved several like siblings, and it tickles me every time I see a well-groomed, friendly dog on a leash here–but that gang of mongrels loitering by the roadside 200 yards ahead strikes dread and loathing in me. I often scheme how I might exact the most satisfying revenge on the dogs that harry me down the road through almost every village, snarling ferociously as though I had done something to outrage them. Carrying rocks in a front basket seems an easy precautionary tactic–though I don’t currently have a basket. Firing a three-pronged pole spear loaded with a rubber hand loop at one end would be extremely satisfying. The other day, in the outskirts of Quito, one of the usual “ribcage mutts,” as I call them, charged me and gave me hell for crawling past on a steep grade. It then fled toward a doorway as I launched an orange at its rear end. The owner, who probably hadn’t ever bathed his dog or picked up its poop in a used newspaper bag, poked his head out the upstairs window and yelled at me that I had antagonized the dog by not walking my bike. The exchange made me wonder if, perhaps, some people here do love their dogs even though they neglect them three-fourths of the way to death.
In the village of Turi, overlooking beautiful Cuenca below, I stopped at a small store and bought a vial of antiseptic for 50 cents and gave my leg a rough cleaning outside. I joined two local boys outside the school, each on their laptops using the free wi-fi, and went online to read what I could about rabies. I had a happy hour beer appointment with another traveler at 6 p.m. in Cuenca and I didn’t want to visit the hospital unless entirely necessary. Before I even connected, a car pulled up in the square and out stepped three beautiful nurses. I put away my laptop and rolled over. “Hello. I was just bitten by a dog,” I said, showing them the wound. “I cleaned it with disinfectant, but can you help? Do you think there is risk of rabies?”
“Yes,” one said. “You need attention.” The women invited me to follow them to the town’s health clinic, where they weighed me, took my blood pressure, measured my height and asked for my name, age, passport number and civil state, taking notes on a clipboard the whole time. Finally, they cleaned the bleeding wound and wrote me an order form for rabies vaccination at Cuenca’s main medical center.
“Is there any cost?” I asked as they began to gesture their farewells. “Nothing,” one said to me, shrugging. ‘We are a public hospital.”
In Cuenca, I found the main hospital closed, for it was after 4 p.m. I spent the late evening researching the perils of rabies and found myself terrified after a few minutes of reading off my laptop. Rabies is extremely deadly. If a person exhibits the first sign of the disease–tingling or burning around the wound–they are usually already goners on an unstoppable downward spiral toward a painful death. At this point, treatment is only given to ease the suffering. Only a handful of people have ever experienced rabies symptoms and still overcome the disease. Usually, to save a bite victim’s life, the vaccine must be delivered prior to the development of the virus in the spinal column and brain. The more I read, the more afraid for my life I became–and angry at the family that never even said they were sorry for their dog’s actions. I noted from several online sources that many authorities will prioritize the testing for rabies of a dog that has bitten someone. This examination is not a forgiving one and may require dissecting the dog’s brain–which got me thinking about my revenge.
“Would you like me to show you where this dog lives?” I hopefully asked the doctor the next morning at Medical Center Number 3, on Calle 12 de Abril. “It’s no trouble. I would be happy to take you there.”
“No,” he said confidently, then ordered me on my back on a cot.
An assistant asked me to pull up my shirt and explained that this would be the first of seven injections into my abdomen, one a day for a week–which spoiled my plans to camp for two or three nights in the lake-studded wilderness of Cajas National Park, 20 miles west and a vertical mile above.
“We close at 4 each day,” the assistant said. “Make sure you’re here. If you miss a day we must begin the whole series again.”
They tossed the needle in the trash and said, “Hasta mañana.”
Rabies treatments are not conducive to the spontaneous travel lifestyles. In my case, I was required to remain in and around Cuenca for six days. I only dared leave town on a bus–and I checked ahead to be sure that Loja, my next destination and 130 miles south, had a vaccination center so I could complete the series. I am now immune to rabies for the next two years, which gives me a powerful sense of indestructibility. Still, I’m thinking about that wicker handlebar basket full of rocks.
Rabies: What to Know, What to Do
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, rabies is carried by mammals and may be passed to a human by a bite or even just a slab of the tongue, as the virus occurs in an infected animal’s saliva. Aside from dogs, other common carriers of rabies include cats, bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks. Anyone who comes into contact with a wild or unknown mammal should be considered at risk of rabies and receive treatment immediately. Symptoms appear following the incubation period, which may take just 10 days or as long as several years. There is no cure once symptoms appear. These may include fever, numbness, tingling and hyperactivity. Death usually occurs within seven days of the onset of symptoms.
Rabies kills more than 55,000 people per year, mostly in Asia and Africa. Travelers to at-risk areas–rabies occurs in most countries–should consider getting immunized before going.
Warning Bats–one of the most common carriers–can deliver a bite without the victim even realizing it. Take no chances. Get vaccinated if you suspect you’ve had contact with an infected animal.
Drinking Alcohol During Rabies Vaccinations As the doctor injected my second dose of Fuenzalida-Palacio vaccine last Friday he said, “No beer, whiskey, nothing.” Oops. “I had a little wine last night,” I said. He shrugged and said, “No big deal.”
Well, what is the deal? I wanted to know because Cuenca has its own brewpub with two imperial stouts on tap, and this was also Super Bowl time in a town swarming with gringo football fans. In other words, I planned on having a few drinks that weekend. According to The Travel Doctor, only two vaccines–that for Japanese encephalitis and the oral vaccine for cholera–come with restrictions on alcohol consumption. Numerous other websites and forums address the same question that I had–can one drink alcohol during post-exposure rabies treatment? Though some travelers have been advised by hospital staff not to exercise, drink alcohol, tea or coffee, or have sex for four months following the first anti-rabies shot, this seems to be entirely unfounded advice.
February 4, 2013
At the Inca Lounge and Bistro, dozens of gringos–tourists and resident expats both–have squeezed into this popular watering hole just off Calle Larga and overlooking the river. It is Super Bowl Sunday in Cuenca, Ecuador–and though the kickoff is still three hours away, owner Mike Sena must usher in his customers early and shut the doors. The sale of alcohol is highly restricted in Ecuador on Sundays, and so Sena, an American who moved here four years ago from New Mexico, is keeping a low profile this Super Bowl and designating the evening a “private party.”
Only a few Ecuadorians have shown. One, a 37-year-old gold mining engineer named Pablo Crespo, was a soccer fan all his life but learned to love (American) football–and the Ravens–during the eight years he lived in Baltimore. “American football is more interesting than soccer,” Crespo concedes. “Every play is different. The players have to be smart, too, and need to read the plays and know what the other team is going to do.”
Soccer, he adds, “can be a little boring.”
London travelers Solomon Slade and his girlfriend Rebecca Wyatt, who have spent the past eight months cycling through Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, are soccer fans and aren’t quite sure what to make of American football.
“Why do they need all the armor?” says Wyatt, 25. “Rugby players don’t wear protection.”
The two have claimed a table inside the bar and are prepared to spend the evening here, though they dread the prospect of a 60-minute game spread thin across more than three hours through timeouts and commercial breaks.
“American sports in general are hard to watch because they’re so stop-start,” Slade, 26, says.
Sena, pouring beers and mixing drinks behind the bar, says that football season generates a spike in his business here–largely from expat Americans but also among native Ecuadorians. He says interest in football among native Ecuadorians is growing in large part because many citizens here who worked in the United States before the economic crash have since returned home–and many of them as football fans.
But Pedro Molina, brewmaster at the nearby La Compañía Microcervecería, at the corner of Borrero and Vazquez streets, told me on Saturday evening that he sees virtually no interest in football among locals. His brewpub is closed on Sundays, and he said he had no plans to watch the game elsewhere–for, like most locals as well as hundreds of millions of people worldwide, Molina prefers the other kind of football.
“Soccer is the king of sports,” Morena said. “It’s a better game. It requires more technique and skill, because you can’t make physical contact.” It’s like a dance, he said–an almost nonstop, 45-minute dance–requiring agility, balance and fancy footwork. “How long is a game of American football?” Molina asked me.
Sixty minutes, I said, plus a couple of hours of breaks. Molina nodded, satisfied that he’d adequately assessed the two games–one a nimble sport of lithe, quick athletes, the other a brutish but slow battle of bellowing muscle-heads and lumbering jocks.
Earlier that same day I questioned three young men working out on the chin-up bars at the popular Parque Paraiso, on the north side of town. They said they knew about the Super Bowl but didn’t seem to think much of it and had no plans to watch the game. I asked which of the two sports–soccer or football–they thought was more challenging.
“American football,” Juan Merchan, 28, said. “It’s tougher on the body.”
But Merchan added that “futbol real” is more interesting to play and to watch since “it involves more improvisation and less plans.”
In the Inca bar, perhaps 200 people of every age category and many nations have crammed into the private party. Still, the Super Bowl has yet to begin. Elizabeth Eckholt, a San Francisco Bay Area native who has been in Ecuador for the past two weeks, says she is routing for the 49ers–though not passionately.
“I’m really here to see the commercials,” she says.
The game begins but plods forward slowly. Every few minutes, a break arrives and we are subjected to another series of ads for cars, beer and junk food.
“I can’t believe the unhealthy junk they advertise on this game,” says Wyatt, voice raised to be heard.
I have never spent six hours in a bar and I don’t plan to tonight. Last May, the Wall Street Journal‘s Bruce Orwall recognized the virtues of what he called “real football”, including soccer’s “subtle athletic grace, fierce national and regional rivalries and mercifully efficient, commercial-free matches.”
I, like him, I assume, am not entertained by Doritos and Calvin Klein ads. Okay–let Beyonce sing if she must, but this game should really be done by 8. I leave before half-time. In the United States, virtually every sports bar must now be crammed with football fans. But in Cuenca, beyond the Inca Lounge and Bistro, the Super Bowl may be happening but this world is not watching. The Sunday evening air of Cuenca is calm and still, the nation quiet on a day without drinks. In this land, soccer is the king of sports and athletes–not advertisers–kings of the airwaves. And for fans of futbol real, even after they watch a televised afternoon match, there may remain enough daylight to go play a game.
February 1, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Give a man a glass of water, and you may quench his thirst. But teach him to build a biosand water filter using local materials and the simplest technology, and he’ll have clean water for life at a cost of just $30.
Even better, Rod and Ingrid McCarroll, two retired Canadians, will pay half the cost or more if the 30 bucks is too steep. Sometimes it is. The McCarrolls, of Calgary, Alberta, have been traveling the world for 12 years in some of the most impoverished communities with the goal of bringing clean water to millions. They have worked through their own nonprofit organization, Friends Who Care International, in rural India, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Last year, they spent six months in Nicaragua alone. Just two weeks ago, they arrived in Ecuador.
“We hope to provide clean water for 20 million people,” Rod told me at the Hostal El Taxo in Quito, where we met by chance in the dining room. “It’s estimated that 1.2 billion people now don’t have clean water for drinking or cooking. The problem is, the world is growing faster than we’re able to help.”
The biosand water filter that is the main feature of the McCarrolls’ work is a relatively simple thing. Invented in the 1990s by David Manz, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Calgary, the contraption is composed of carefully selected and treated sand and gravel, as well as a layer of iron nails, strategically layered in a four-foot-tall concrete casing. The setup weighs more than 200 pounds, making it too heavy to steal. Maintenance is easy, requiring simply scooping the mucky top water from the gravel layer every few months. Being too simple to experience serious mechanical breakdowns, the water filter all but guarantees a family clean water for life. Tap, pond or river water is poured into the gravel, and at a rate of one liter per 80 seconds, pure water emerges from the spout. The filter removes 99.5 percent of bacteria, viruses and protozoa, according to Rod, as well as 100 percent of parasites and 100 percent of arsenic—which bonds to the iron oxide molecules of the rusting nails and becomes unable to travel through the filter. Currently, the McCarrolls are in the rural mountainous regions surrounding Cuenca—Ecuador’s third-largest city—working with local contacts and community leaders to teach them how to build the filters. Arsenic, Rod says, contaminates much of the region’s water—a serious problem that could be solved as easily as the filter is simple.
Rod stresses that he and Ingrid are not just delivering clean water to one family at a time. Rather, they are teaching others—especially community leaders—to build biosand water filters and to teach the trick to others. By this means, the snowball effect seems already to have kicked in. While the McCarrolls have worked in just half a dozen countries, Rod says that clean water now trickles from half a million biosand water filters in 75 countries.
Apart from clean water, the McCarrolls have also worked to bring sustainable, off-the-grid electricity to the needy through another Canadian nonprofit called Light Up the World. Living in literal darkness, Rod says, means living in intellectual and spiritual darkness, too—as people cannot educate themselves if they return from work to a home too dim to read in.
But the McCarrolls have another objective, too, which leads them through more figurative realms of light and darkness: They are Christian missionaries. This is a more latent, secondary element of their work. Clean water and electricity come first, and religion follows. It may take 30 minutes of chatting with the pair even to discover their spiritual concerns, yet along with biosand water filters, they are indeed missionaries, encouraging those who accept their help to also adopt Christianity.
“If you go around the world and tell starving people that God loves them, it’s hogwash,” Ingrid said. “It means nothing. But if you give them something, then they see that they really do have friends.”
Rod says the interest in dispensing Christian ideals goes hand in hand with having clean water, electricity and basic sanitary conditions. He says, too, that religious conversion is not a main objective—but that it doesn’t hurt to make Hindus into Christians. The caste system, outlawed in India yet persisting through tradition, plagues much of the Hindu world—especially India. It relegates people born as untouchables to a life of poverty and filth—and with contaminated drinking water to boot, Rod points out.
“We’re just trying to help remove them from this darkness,” he explains. “But there are 600,000 villages in India, and many of them don’t want anything to do with missionaries. So how do we get in?”
The biosand water filter. Given to the needy and bearing with it the heavy scent of Christianity (the McCarrolls may prompt prayer circles with families before they depart), “the water filter,” Rod says, “serves as a 24/7 missionary.”
Rod is 71 years old. Ingrid is 70. When she was a child, she barely escaped from East Germany before the Berlin Wall went up. Her family had been torn apart during the turmoil of war, but they managed to reconvene with the help of the Red Cross in Austria in 1945. Ingrid and Rod met and married 46 years ago. Upon retiring, they determined not to kick up their feet between rounds of golf and luxury vacation cruises.
“We decided that we’d done well, and we wanted to give back,” Ingrid said.
After learning about Manz’s biosand water filter in the late 1990s and growing efforts to dispense the invention around the world, the McCarrolls saw their opportunity to help the world’s unfortunate. They worked at first with the organization CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), which was led by Camille Dow Baker, a former oil development executive striving to reform her career. Once the McCarrolls had learned the ropes, they established Friends Who Care International in 2001, and they have divided their time between Calgary and the wider world ever since.
January 30, 2013
About 15 miles north of Quito, a palatial iron gate on the west side of the highway opens onto a long, stately driveway leading across a prim and trim government property, past statues of acclaimed national leaders and, after about 200 yards, to the base of a nearly 100-foot-tall brick-and-mortar monument, grand enough to produce tears, called the Mitad del Mundo—“Middle of the World.” A yellow painted stripe representing the line of zero degrees latitude even runs up a walkway and bisects the monolith, which was built in 1979 and stands today as a premier tourist attraction, and a grand and glowing tribute to one of Ecuador’s proudest features: the Equator.
The problem is, they built the thing in the wrong place. The Equator is actually several hundred feet to the north, as determined by modern GPS technology that wasn’t available to the earlier surveyors of the region. As long ago as 1736 scientists were exploring Ecuador, with, among other goals, the aim of defining and marking the Equator. At some point, the current Mitad del Mundo line was painted proudly on the ground. But in recent decades, the embarrassing truth emerged: The Equator actually, and without a doubt, crosses the highway just up the road, where the property owners surely rejoiced upon hearing the news (and took their own GPS measurements, as they claim they have done) and have since built their own rather campy but perhaps more accurate attraction.
As for the grandiose government monument just to the south, what’s built is built, and, as the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity. And so the yellow painted line that leads into the museum at the base of the Mitad monument is still declared to be the waistline of the Earth and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Here, they walk the line, straddle it, try and balance eggs on it and shake hands over it.
But I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t enter the museum, either—not because admission was $3 but because I didn’t see the point. Nor did I see any point in getting coffee at the Equator, buying “Mitad del Mundo” trinkets at the gift shops on the Equator, eating lunch at the Equator, sitting down for a beer at the Equator or petting an alpaca at the Equator (the little camelids roam the premises). Because I wasn’t on the Equator and it all would have meant nothing. Carved into the monument is the site’s elevation (2,483 meters) and longitude (78 degrees, 27 minutes and eight seconds west—or so they say). But these somewhat arbitrary numbers are made even more so since, well, this isn’t the Equator.
Still, I did as many visitors to the Mitad do and had my passport stamped by the lady working the museum admission booth so that I could prove to the folks back home that I had actually stood on the Equator—well, almost.
“Does the stamp say ‘Mitad del Mundo, Mas o Menos’?” Alistair Hill joked minutes later, just after I met him and several other British travelers on the steps before the monument.
Hill and his girlfriend Jess Swan, both from England and now backpacking through South America for several months, gazed up at the hulking, majestic thing. They had heard the rumors that the attraction was not all it is claimed to be but made the trip from Quito anyway, splitting a cab four ways for $40.
“How did they get it so wrong?” Hill said. “Why didn’t they just flush a toilet on each side to make sure they had it right? It makes you wonder if the Meridian really passes through Greenwich.”
Hill’s friend Chris Leigh joked, “So, what else in the world have they got wrong? The South Pole? The North Pole? The Tropic of Capricorn? That’s probably 100 miles out of line. Turns your world upside-down, doesn’t it?”
But for all the pomp and circumstance, gravity and grandeur of the Mitad del Mundo, that a huge mistake has been made is freely admitted today, and the officials who work at the site readily tell visitors who inquire where to find the actual Equator.
“Turn left at the gate, and it’s 100 meters on your left,” the guard at the entrance told me as I was leaving.
You have to watch closely, but you’ll see it—a sign reading “Museo Solar Inti-Nan.” The sign assures you that you are now at zero degrees, zero minutes and zero seconds—neither north nor south of the middle of the world. The sign adds that these figures were “calculated by ‘GPS.’” It comes off as a smirking insult directed at the government site just down the road, but the sign is only being honest. A humble dirt trail leads visitors up a ravine, across a small bridge and into the outdoor museum area. While guests are free to wander at the Mitad del Mundo site, at the private museum visitors are quickly asked for $4 and then ushered into a small tour group, whether you want the service or not. I joined Amy Jones of Texas and Stefania Egas of Quito, and our English-speaking guide led the way. Much of the tour, through wood huts and artifact collections, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Equator. We saw a pen full of guinea pigs, a shrunken human head, a soggy dead boa constrictor in formaldehyde, a collection of totem poles and an exhibit featuring native folks of the Amazon.
But we finally got to the feature attraction—the Equator. It is represented by a red line, along which have been mounted a sundial, a spinning globe, nail heads on which one may try and balance an egg and—the grand fireworks of the tour–a full wash basin used to demonstrate the way that draining water supposedly swirls in a particular direction in each hemisphere. There has been much debate about this phenomenon. The Coriolis effect, a function of motion and the curvature of the Earth, is real, a phenomenon by which free-moving objects in the Northern Hemisphere appear to veer toward the right and those in the Southern Hemisphere to the left. At zero degrees latitude, the effect does not occur. This is why, for example, hurricanes wither and dissipate when they drift too close to the Equator.
But whether toilets and sinks, at their small scale, can demonstrate the Coriolis effect isn’t clear, though most experts say that the Coriolis effect does not visibly affect moving water over such a short distance as the diameter of a sink or toilet. Yet our young mono-toned tour guide, drably repeating a show she had probably given many times before, made it happen. On the Equator, after she pulled the drain plug, the water shot straight through without a swirl in either direction. Ten feet to the south, the water drained in a clockwise gyre. And just to the north, the water went down in a counterclockwise whirlpool. I suspect there was trickery at play—possibly by a hand furtively dipped into the basin and slyly setting the appropriate flow direction when we weren’t watching. I walked away frustrated, if not wowed, and I admit: The 100-foot-tall monument of the government, though a big fat mistake, is a greater site to see.
But just when we think we’ve got the whole matter sorted out and the Earth perfectly bisected, I discover this blog post from a science-savvy traveler named Adam Rasheed, who claims we’ve all been duped twice over. In 2006, Rasheed wrote a blog entry for a science and technology firm called Global Research in which he described visiting both of the equatorial sites, being skeptical of the private museum’s claims of legitimacy and promptly taking equatorial matters into his own hands using a GPS device. Rasheed concluded that the true Equator was still farther up the road, and here he and a friend built their own equatorial monument of plastic drink bottles and rubbish. Whether Rasheed had it right seems, by now, doubtful—not that it really matters. Because if Ecuador builds the 5,000-foot-tall spire that a New York architect proposed be erected on the Equator, then that would be the destination most worth paying to see—whether they place it exactly at zero degrees latitude or not.
Perhaps there is only one thing certain in this foggy fuss over the Equator: The more monuments and museums the merrier. If you think you can improve upon the existing measurements, let us know in the comment box below.