Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Journey to the Center of the Earth

So if you haven’t brushed up on your Spanish in awhile, you might not realize that Ecuador means equator, for the obvious reason that the equator passes right through it. Quito is actually quite near the equator, hence the name which means, “Middle of the World” in a native language. The true 0 latitude point is not in Quito, but about 40 minutes outside the center to the north, a place we just had to visit. Called La Mitad del Mundo, this point was not only sacred to the indigenous people, it’s also a must-see tourist attraction, mostly to say you’ve stepped in the two hemispheres at once.

La Mitad del Mundo has two parts, the first a huge monument planted by the French marking the equatorial line, the second a small native museum marking true zero. According to modern GPS, the natives had it right all along while the French were about 240 meters off. The French monument is the more popular tourist destination with its massive concrete, globe-topped marker housed in a faux-village with overpriced shops and restaurants. Luckily it also had a few interesting museums with Ecuadorian art and an exhibit on the French exhibition to measure the curvature of the earth at the equator in 1743.

At the French equator
The native exhibit is separate and has a different character. A local guide led us through a maze of local vegetation while telling us stories of Ecuadorians who still live in today’s Amazon region. We saw shrunken heads, anaconda skins, blow guns and the local food staple, cuy (guinea pig). The guides also showed us a few tricks that can only be done on the equator. You can balance an egg on a nail head, something we both succeeded at. Draining water spirals in different directions whether you’re north or south (although we heard this was a crock). Also, it’s nearly impossible to walk with eyes closed and arms outstretched in a straight line.

Got it on the second try
Got it on the first try
The natives knew all along that zero degrees was in this exact spot, or rather in the area since one degree is about 112 km, the equator is sort of a wide band around the earth. They knew mostly because of the hours of sunlight, which are pretty much the same, no matter what the season. In fact, there really aren’t seasons, only a slight change in the shadow on a solar clock can tell you what time of year it is. And according to our guide, there are no major weather phenomena because of cancelling currents. The natives knew this place was sacred and it truly is a unique place.

Absolute zero
After straddling the equator, we went in search of a lunch place Andrew Zimmern had visited to try grilled cuy. We found the exact place thanks to the big sign out front with Zimmern’s picture and ordered one cuy platter for two. The guinea pigs were already partially grilled so the owner heated them over a hot flame to get the skin crispy, and in no time we were diving into our meal. The meat was a little hard to get at, there being so little of it, but it was hardly gamey. The legs, tenderloin and jowls were the best parts, complimented by the creamy bowl of potatoes we were served. Cuy is not a common food anymore and it’s relatively expensive, but it was an interesting culinary experience that one should have in the Andes.

Cuy asado con papas
If going to the center of the earth wasn’t enough, we also had to make it to one of the highest points “on” the equator, Cotopaxi. Just 17 km south of Quito, Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at 5,897 m. It technically is higher than Mount Everest if you measure by distance to the core since the earth bulges significantly at the equator. We did a combined hiking and biking tour to visit this famous peak.

From Quito, we packed into a minibus with 15 other travelers and a roof full of mountain bikes. The drive south was beautiful – we passed other major volcanoes in the area with acres of fertile farmland stretching across their bases in geometric patterns. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy so we couldn’t see Cotopaxi’s magnificent snow-capped cone from afar. We had a briefing at a nature museum and munched on some coca leaf candies before starting the drive up half the volcano. Our bus broke down about three-quarters of the way up, so we had to wait for a 4x4 to come get us in shifts to take us up.

The starting point for the hike was a parking lot at about 4,500 m. The ascent was grueling. Three hundred meters of climbing at a 45 degree angle up unstable volcanic rock. It was like walking through sand with added hail pelting us. We had to stop every 15-20 steps just to catch our breath, so it took at least 2 hours to reach 4,800 m where a small refuge had been built to house climbers. After another less grueling 150 m, we were at the snowline, the highest point we could reach without real gear. We made snowballs and snow angels and rested.

Just barely able to lift our arms at the refugio
Equatorial snow angel
I've reached the top....sort of...
The views were stunning - below us rolling green and yellow plains below red and black volcanic rock, above blueish equatorial glaciers and behind them the peak of Cotopaxi barely visible behind the clouds. The sun came out for a bit and we soaked up the rays. What a great feeling to make it to the snow, even if the car did more than half the work. After a much quicker descent back to the parking lot, we hopped on bikes for the rest of the downhill. Going downhill on bikes was not especially fun for several reasons 1) it was raining, 2) the road was dirt and in bad condition so it felt like being on a washboard, 3) our hands got cold and numb really fast from constantly braking. It probably would have been better in clearer weather, but as it was, after a long hike, we were more than happy to get off the bikes after about 15 km. After a comedic attempt to stuff 17 bikes into a new bus, we headed back toward Quito, stopping for a much needed dinner at a local hacienda.

Still smiling despite the rain
From the middle of the earth to nearly the top of it, the environs of Quito provided us with plenty of opportunities to have some unforgettable experiences. 

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