If you find yourself in Quito, a visit to the equator is more or less obligatory – the middle of the Earth is only about a thirty-minute drive north from the Ecuadorean capital. As you get closer, the highland vegetation gives way to sandy plains punctuated by uninspiring brown hills. The “Mitad del Mundo” monument itself is even less exciting: a low-level metal-and-stone affair, it sits at the point determined by a French scientific expedition in 1736 to be latitude 0° 0’ 0”. The real treat here is to stand on the red-painted equator line, with one foot in each hemisphere. Doing so is more than just an unmissable photo opportunity: you can’t help but be struck by a sense of reverence.
It all seems a bit unreal – and it may be: about 150m north, a short walk up the highway, is a rival museum, Inti Ñan, which claims that it sits on the location of the real equator line, a point well known to mystics from Ecuador’s indigenous Quichua peoples since pre-Columbian times. There’s no monument and everything has a very home-made feel, but you do get to interact with the magnetic forces at work here. A sink is produced, filled and then emptied of water to show you that instead of swirling, water at the equator runs straight down the plug. You can also balance an egg on a nail, since the forces of gravity are weaker. The passion of the guides involves more than the position of the equator line: Inti Ñan is about honouring traditional knowledge as much as scientific accuracy.
Ultimately, a visit to the equator would be incomplete if you didn’t go to each of the museums, tipping your hat to the achievements of both early modern science and ancient heritage. Rather than transcendental cosmic awe, you’re more likely to be somewhat comforted by the kitschy understatedness of it all, as if the Earth is having the last laugh.
A bus runs from Avenida América in Quito to Mitad del Mundo. For Inti Ñan, turn left from the Mitad del Mundo, walk uphill a few hundred metres and then follow signs left again.