Twenty kilometres north of Quito, at 2483m on the fringes of the dusty town of San Antonio de Pichincha, lies the colonial-styled complex of whitewashed buildings, gift shops, snack bars and museums known as LA MITAD DEL MUNDO (The Middle of the World), straddling the line that divides the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres and gives the country its name – the equator (latitude of 0° 0’ 0”). Charles-Marie de La Condamine and his geodesic mission first ascertained its exact demarcation in 1736–44, and a monument to this achievement was raised across the line in 1936. Deemed not grand enough, it was replaced in 1979 with the current one. Modern GPS readings have revealed that even the new monument is seven seconds of a degree south of the true equator, roughly 240m adrift, but the finding has done little to dent the popularity of the attraction – local crowds flock to the site, particularly on Sundays and holidays, when music and dance performances are held in the afternoons.
From the entrance to the site, a cobbled street, lined with busts of La Condamine’s expedition members, leads up to the thirty-metre-tall La Mitad del Mundo monument, a giant concrete monolith replete with large metal globe. From its base, a line representing the equator extends outwards – even running down the middle of the aisle (and altar) of the church within the complex. Inside the monument is the Ethnographic Museum ($3), accessed via a lift. Once at the top, you descend by stairs through the museum, which displays region-by-region exhibits on Ecuador’s indigenous populations and their customs, with fine exhibits of native dress and artefacts.
Among the other sites in the complex are various national pavilions, representing the countries that took part in the expedition, each with its own little museum. A planetarium on site offers rather unimpressive hourly shows, but the more stimulating Fundación Quito Colonial, contains richly detailed miniature models of Guayaquil, Cuenca and Quito – featuring their own artificial sunrise and sunset. Also within the complex is a post office, gift shops, an ATM, restaurants and snack bars. Pig out – and then try the weighing scales here, knowing you’ve actually lost a little weight while on the equator. Thanks to the earth’s own bulging waistline, gravity is weaker here, so you weigh less; unfortunately, your mass will be the same.