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In alphabetical order: Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Indonesia, Kenya, the Republic of the Congo, São Tomé & Príncipe, Somalia and Uganda. The Equator runs through the land masses of 11 countries (though not, curiously, Equatorial Guinea). Ecuador, however, is the only one named after it.

Several hundred years ago, it was believed that the Equator passed through the middle of Quito, Ecuador’s capital (and a city about which we’ll be writing more shortly). In the 18th century, though, French scientists determined that the Equator crossed Ecuador about 20km north of the town. At some point between then and now, a tourist industry sprang up to exploit this geographical accident. On June 21, the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice to the south, we went in search of it.

 


 

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An hour-long bus ride from Quito, Mitad del Mundo traps tourists with the promise of access to, translated literally, the Middle of the World. An exciting prospect. However, and to no one’s great surprise, the middle of the world turns out to be a shopping mall. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) Fancy-dressed locals pimp souvenirs and ice creams to wide-eyed coach partiers, cameras like necklaces and wallets thick as bricks. A small stand offers middle-of-the-world passport stamps for two dollars. There’s even a set of scales, which purports to illustrate how people weigh less at the Equator due to the fractionally lower gravitational pull. This is illustrated with a photograph, standing on the scales and wearing a Cheshire-cat grin, of Don King.

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At the centre of this gaudy charade is a vast obelisk. It might be mistaken for a war memorial were it not for the viewing gallery at the top and the inevitable admission fee required to access it. This is what everyone has come here to see: the obelisk, and a yellow line painted on the ground either side of it, marks the Equator.

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Except it doesn’t. The monument was built before the advent of GPS technology lent greater precision to latitudinal and longitudinal measurements, and so it sits a few hundred metres south of the line it’s meant to represent. If the staff know this, they’re not telling. Nor are the television crews and reporters, present to mark the solsticio. And if the tourists are aware, and many guidebooks delight in pointing out the error, they’re happy to play along for the sake of a scrapbook snap.

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Despite numerous signs to the contrary, the same problem occurs at the neighbouring Museo Intiñan. At this open-air attraction (‘Museo’ is a stretch), a kind of no-budget Latino Ripley’s Believe It or Not, credulous tourists are relieved of their dollars in return for a hurried walk through some tatty, pseudo-ethnographic tableaux and faux-scientific ‘experiments’. (Will received a certificate for successfully balancing an egg on the head of a nail. This apparently proves something. We forget what.) The Equatorial line proudly drawn on the ground here is nearer the mark than the obelisk, but not near enough.

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Curious, we follow the dusty road further north. Eventually, our GPS device registers the mythic zero reading a few yards outside the gates of what appears to be the Ecuadorian equivalent of Travis Perkins. Judging from the looks thrown our way by those on the Saturday shift, the trabajadores are aware of their workplace’s equatorial status but no longer terribly impressed by it.

 


 

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The next day, we cross the Equator again without realising, this time on bicycles after leaving Quito. The road swerves and curves as it cuts through the hills towards Colombia, and our hemisphere-crossing goes unmarked by plaques and attractions.

But then, seven kilometres south of a small town named Cayambe, we pass another monument. We’re not sure what’s more surprising: the absence of souvenir-shop hustle or the accuracy of the totem pole, which tallies perfectly with the zero-latitude reading given on our GPS device. The monument, it turns out, is a vast sundial established by Quitsato, a small organisation that conducts research into the importance of the Equator to indigenous people.

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At half-five on a Sunday afternoon, the only other people present are a couple of friendly chaps from Quitsato. After a chat, one of them takes our picture, whereupon we cross back into the northern hemisphere for good. As Londoners, we’re now expecting it to be much easier to hail a cab.

from Ibarra, Imbabura, Ecuador