Although the Equator actually runs through eleven countries (Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Indonesia, Kenya, Republic of Congo, Saõ Tomé and Principe, Somalia, Uganda), Ecuador is the country that seems to have made the most of its location, as indicated already by its name.
The Ciudad de la Mitad del Mundo, just north of Quito, is a whole complex of museums, shops and restaurants based around the line of 0 degrees latitude. Unfortunately, the advent of GPS has revealed that the actual line is some 240m to the north of this line. A fact that a separate institution, the Intañan Solar Museum, has used to its advantage in claiming to be built on the true Equator. Here, they let you carry out the infamous experiments that purport to show the physical consequences of being located at the exact mid-point between the North and South Poles: balancing an egg on a nail is supposed to be easier as the gravitational pull is weaker; water drains straight down out of the sink (instead of clockwise in the south and counter-clockwise in the north, i.e. the Coriolis effect) since the centrifugal and centripetal forces cancel each other out; and trying to walk in a straight line along the Equator with your eyes closed would have us all failing a drunk driving test as the confusing effect on your body allegedly makes it almost impossible. The museum also provides you with the most macabre tidbits of information, such as warning men not to pee in the Amazon as this will attract the penis fish which will kill you in just a few days; taking you through the process of how to shrink a human head; and describing how the wives, children, and servants of important men would be drugged and buried alive when those men died, since they would be needed in the afterlife.
My impressions of the rest of Quito were rather limited, as unfortunately the common cold that I brought with me from Europe blossomed into something worse on arrival, leaving me bed-ridden with fever for most of the time I was there. I did manage to take pictures of various churches around town – the white Monasterio de San Francisco right outside our hostel, the Gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional sitting on a hill a bit further away, and in the other direction the Panecillo, Monumento a la Virgen de Quito. Ecuador is 95% Roman Catholic, which I found further manifested in the shrine within our hostel, the religious paraphernalia hanging in people’s cars (alongside emblems of their favourite football team), and a couple of smiling nuns walking down the road.
My culinary experiences were therefore also limited. I had a ‘cappuccino colonial’ (with caramel, whipped cream, and nutmeg sprinkled on top) in a little café called El Cafeto, and empanadas in Cafeteria Modelo, established back in the 1950s. Many of the shops in the historical old town would have put Willy Wonka to shame, bursting as they were with sweets right from the ceiling down to the floor. Another common sight was piñatas and ornate fireworks, the latter having been introduced by the Spanish but now sporting more modern designs such as Disney princesses (I want one!) and Spider-Man. On the roads leading in and out of the city, men and women weaved through the cars selling fruit – naranjas, manzanas, uvas – as well as crisps and cones of fluorescent ice cream.
Quito is at 2,800m above sea level, and I felt breathless just walking up the stairs to my room. This does not bode well for my four-day trek to Machu Picchu – but let’s hope that my cold was at least partly to blame. The weather followed the same pattern every day: glorious sunshine in the morning, clouding over by the afternoon when suddenly the skies would open and a storm would rage (thunder is incredibly loud when you’re up in the clouds!). Despite this clear pattern emerging, people seemed caught unawares, and trade was brisk for the women who appeared out of nowhere to sell umbrellas and ponchos.
Next stop: the Galapagos!