Latin America & Caribbean

Chasing the equator in Ecuador

Monuments marking the middle of the Earth
Image caption Ecuador has many "middle of the Earth" monuments

After years living in Ecuador, I thought it was about time I visited the equator - but it proved more difficult than I thought.

The reason being that in Ecuador there are several places that claim to mark the precise point between the northern and southern hemispheres.

I ended up visiting four different places.

The first is a site called Middle of the World, some 10 miles (16km) north of the capital, Quito.

It hosts a huge monument visited every year by some 130,000 tourists. Typically, they take a photo of themselves with one foot on either hemisphere, traced by a thick yellow line on the ground.

After hearing my guide's thorough explanation about the work of French astronomers there in the 18th Century, I asked if this yellow line really did represent the equator.

"No, it's actually 240m to the north of here," he said.

"When this was set up by French astronomers, we didn't have the technology that we have today.

"They insisted it was here, which is why the monument was built. But local people always said that it was elsewhere, and later that's what was proved."

Broad-strip equator

The French astronomers were part of a mission that arrived in Ecuador in 1736 to finish measuring a long circular arc around the middle of the Earth.

Their vision of the equator, it turns out, is just one of a number of different interpretations.

The head guide at the Middle of the World site, Raquel Aldaz, says the contrasting views are part of a long debate.

Image caption The BBC's Matias Zibel on the purported line of the equator

"We should not talk about a line some millimetres thick, it is something wider," she says.

Still, intrigued by the idea that 240m could separate the "tourist-photo" equator from the "real" equator, I went to the town of Calacali to find this other equator.

In the central square, covered with graffiti, was a 10m structure built by a local artisan in 1936 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the French mission to the region.

But Holguer Jara, archaeologist and anthropologist at the Central University of Ecuador, immediately dampened my spirits.

"The middle of the Earth is an imaginary line, or maybe more of a strip, that many scientists agree is about 5km (3 miles) wide," he said.

Mr Jara said there was another place where the middle of the planet was marked - not as a line, but as a ball-shaped point.

"People there don't see the equator as a line but as the point where Earth is roundest between north and south," he said.

This place was Cayambe, where the third-highest volcano in Ecuador is located, almost 80km (50 miles) further north of Quito.

As expected, Cayambe hosts yet another monument for photo-hungry tourists.

Different conceptions

Cristobal Cobo, a local researcher in archaeology and astronomy in Cayambe, disagrees with the concept of a broad-strip equator.

"Historically scientists have underestimated ancient, indigenous astronomical studies," said Mr Cobo.

He insisted that a centuries-old astronomical site is evidence of this knowledge.

Mr Cobo took me to Catequilla, between Cayambe and Quito, where he showed me an ancient pre-Hispanic structure which, he said, marked the exact spot of the equator.

The ruins have been damaged by motorcycle tracks.

He thinks that ancient local tribes (including the Incas) may have had interest in finding the equator. Although others in Ecuador think differently.

"These civilisations had different ways of conceiving the world to the way we do," said Florencio Delgado, of the Ecuadorean University of San Francisco.

Such different views and interpretations still persist.

As a citizen of the 21st Century, with modern technology at my disposal, I was still unable to find one correct place.

The more I explored and talked to experts, the more sites seemed to appear to mark the centre of Earth.

Ms Delgado even mentioned a place hundreds of kilometres away, on the Ecuadorean coast, where the people of the town of Pedernales marked the spot where the imaginary equator line leaves the land and begins into the sea.

But I had already spent days chasing this photo, and this new journey just appeared to be too far away.