A Tale of Two Equators

For many people, visiting the Equator for the first time is a special moment combining touristy novelty and a sense of real exploration. After all, crossing the equator is a sign of having traveled to a new part of the world, so seeing the line itself must be an experience to yield some feeling of mixed importance and silliness. But, how would someone know that they are actually standing on the equator? How can a tourist be sure that the line they’re straddling for pictures is the actual line they’re looking for? In Quito, Ecuador, they can rest assured that they’re probably at the wrong spot. Why? Because of the French.

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Eastern side of the monument on the French Equator

Ecuador is Spanish for “Equator”. Subsequently, Ecuadorians often refer to the part itself as “Mitad del Mundo” or “Middle of the World”. The nation derives its name from the 1736 French Academy of Sciences mission which measured the location of the equator in a spot that is now in the outskirts of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The expedition confirmed that they had measured the location of the equator in the new world, and the region became somewhat of a landmark for it. Ecuador would go on to construct a physical landmark for the spot which would grow to include a museum, planetarium, bright yellow line, and a large stone globe sitting high on a pedestal. This monument has become the famous tourist sight which draws people in from all over. The only problem is that it’s not the real equator.

The supposedly true equator, as measured by modern day GPS, actually lies about 240m North of the Mitad del Mundo monument. Here you cannot find the planetarium, polished monument, and hordes of tourists. Instead, there sits an ethnographic museum to Ecuador’s native peoples. At the outdoor museum there of course is a line demarcating the true equator, and tour guides will perform all sorts of “scientific” tricks to highlight the fact, but the real draw is a humble ethnographic showing of the Ecuadorian people and native culture.

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The “True” Equator located about 240m North of the Mitad del Mundo monument on the French Equator

Today it is rumored that even the line at the “true” equator is not entirely correct, and that the precise center of the globe is further North still. No GPS can answer the real question though; does it really matter? An individual will not feel different having straddled one line or the other; there is no magic effect to be beheld, science does not take a vacation day at the exact spot, and nobody grants you the title of “World’s Most Adventurous Person”. Instead, there simply stands a grandiose monument to a small mistake on one line, and a humble cultural exhibition on the other.

On a globe with a circumference of 40,000 km, what difference does 240m really make after all.

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