The National Symbol is a Fake

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South America » Ecuador
November 18th 2008
Published: December 5th 2008
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Mitad Del MundoMitad Del MundoMitad Del Mundo

Ecuador really is the middle of the Earth

But First...

We´re not going to dwell on this for too long... but our bag got stolen... from right above our heads! We´re not sure how it happened, save to say that the bus was packed with plenty of people standing. It was on the way to the Ecuador/Peru border at Huaquillas and we now know that professional criminals work this route. That is why there are no pictures with this blog. Our camera and the chip were in the bag. Bugger!

We Thought We Were Fit

So, anyway, we started the second leg of our trip in Ecuador and its capital, Quito. At an impressive 2850m above sea level we were gasping for air just walking around on our first morning, but by the afternoon had just about sorted out the change of altitude. It seems in South America every major city has a religious figure somewhere up high. Quito´s is a virgin mother perched on top of a hill called El Panecillo (the little bread roll). We tested our sea level lungs to the max by walking up there on our first day. We took the steps that guide books advise against because it was a
The TeleferiQoThe TeleferiQoThe TeleferiQo

Quito´s latest attraction and the easiest way to get up high above the city.
weekend and there were plenty of other people also using them. We had no problem, but it´s easy to see how tourists could get ambushed using them on quiet days. The view from the top was lovely and gave us a god idea of the size of the city. Quito is built in a valley so it is very long and thin. We hit upon a great money saving scheme right from the start, which has been great for our meagre budget. All the local eateries offer a ´menu’ for lunch and supper. This menu consists of a huge soup starter, a meat and veg main with rice and then a drink or desert... and it is really cheap. There is so much food we have been sharing one each meal time ever since.

Up, Up and Away

Quito has a fairly new attraction called the TeleferiQo which is a massive cable car taking you up to 4,100m near the summit of Volcan Pichincha. It is an ear-poppingly high journey and much cheaper if you have a student card (thanks STA Travel!) The views from the top are amazing and you can walk all the way to the
The summit of  CotopaxiThe summit of  CotopaxiThe summit of Cotopaxi

We left David´s vomit out of our artist´s impression!
summit if you want. We went about half the way in training for our trip to Cotopaxi, but more about that later.

The Centre Of The Earth And The Great Big Con

Of course no trip to Ecuador would be complete without a trip to the Equator, so we duly plonked ourselves on a bus bound for the aptly named "Mitad Del Mundo" and piled out at the Equator for a look. There´s a giant monument of the earth bearing the cardinal points, a few interesting signs to read and a big red line on the ground with the obligatory man with an instant camera taking perspective shots of you with the whole world in your hand. You have to pay to get in to this area, which is basically like paying to get into a shopping centre as most of the complex has the usual tourist tat for sale and several over-priced restaurants. If you want to visit the planetarium or several other potentially interesting bits in the complex you have to pay extra, and here´s the biggest con of all: The equator line and the monument - so proudly displayed on T-shirts, postcards and just about
The Nariz de DiabaloThe Nariz de DiabaloThe Nariz de Diabalo

Riding on the roof of the switch-back train
everything else you can think of - isn´t even in the right place!

The true Middle of the Earth is in fact 240m away... and there´s more. Sandwiched between the Mitad Del Mundo complex and another museum which claims to be on the actual Equator is a tiny little room housing a fascinating display all about the real middle of the earth. The project is called QUITSATO which is the original name for Quito and means Middle of the Earth in Ecuador´s original Tsafiqui language. This small group of scientists and astronomers has discovered the site of the true middle of the earth, on the equator on a hill just outside Quito. There they have discovered an ancient building which lines up with all kinds of amazing things including both the solstices and equinox. It has several other fascinating points such as the angles of walls being the same as the angle of the sun in relation to the earth at certain times of the year. It was fascinating and the scientist who spoke to us was able to show that following lines out from this monument they have discovered dozens of other ancient sites where temples or scientific
Cute LocalsCute LocalsCute Locals

The colourful women and children who waved to us as we passed on the train
buildings once stood.

The reason Ecuador, not any other country on the equator can be called the middle of the earth is that it is the only place in the world where the equator crosses through mountains. Everywhere else it is flat land, forest or jungle. The presence of the mountains gave these early cultures fixed points of reference with which to measure the movement of the sun throughout the year without the need to build pyramids or suchlike. All of this was created by cultures which existed as far back as 1500BC. These early astronomers were already using the sun to measure seasons and using this knowledge for agriculture and festivals. It was a totally eye-opening half an hour and left us in awe of the kind of knowledge that some civilisations had so long ago. Now they are using GPS to re-discover more and more sites. The travesty is that QUITSATO gets no funding from the government, which is quite happy for the aforementioned big shiny monument and complex to represent "the Middle of the Earth" to tourists around the world. We recommend visiting this display (if you can find it) and listening to what the guys
Burglar BillBurglar BillBurglar Bill

There goes our bag...
there have to say. It is free, though they are in desperate need of donations. It is right next to the Mitad Del Mundo site in the entrance to a restaurant called something like Equinox and is not to be confused with the other museum a bit round the corner called Solar Inti Ñan.

Up, Up and Up... Then The Long Slide Down

Back in Quito we booked a trip to climb Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world and Ecuador´s second highest mountain. We were a bit nervous because neither of us had used crampons or ice axes before, but as we set off our guide told us it would be no problem. We did an acclimatisation walk the day beforehand and as the rain poured down for most of the day we had to tell ourselves to expect the same up the mountain. The climb to the refuge where we spent the night was easy enough because even though it is at around 4800m a road goes most of the way there. After some "if you slip in the snow and ice then this is how to stop yourself sliding all the way down the mountain into a crevasse" training we hit the sack ready for our midnight wake-up and push for the summit.

At midnight we woke up and sadly David was suffering the same kind of altitude effects as he got on Kilimanjaro. This meant feeling sick and having an upset stomach. After a bit of an extra sleep we decided to attempt the summit anyway and with David roped between the guide at the front and Tracey at the back off we set. Because of all the rain lower down the valley there was a lot of fresh snow on the mountain, so along with the intense cold we were having to cope with every step taking us 50cms forward and slipping 40cm back again, even in crampons. Step by step we gradually made it up the slopes and at times, when the moon came out, it was amazing. The landscape of crevasses and icy overhangs took on a ghostly blue colour in the light of the moon and the peak loomed impossibly far off in the distance. Poor David had to make an emergency mountain-side stop as the stomach continued to play up, but finally, just as it seemed we would never make it... and as other groups started passing us on their way down... we reached the top. 5897m above sea level. We´d love to show you the pictures, but of course some bastard somewhere has our camera and chip, so you´ll have to make do with the artists impressions we have made for our Ecuador trip! At the summit David´s body was so exhausted he fell to the ground and vomited. After the agonising climb up, the way down was great fun... for David. Thanks to the huge amount of fresh snow, all he had to do (and in fact all he had the energy left to do) was sit down on his bum and let Tracey pull him down the mountain on a rope, caveman stylee. By the time we reached the refugio we both wanted to die, but another hour´s walk downhill to the car park and a few hours back to Quito still lay ahead before we could eat and sleep!

Three De-railments and a Few Quick Track Repairs

Our final adventure in Ecuador was the Nariz de Diabalo train ride from Riobamba to Sibambe and back to Alausi. This train is famous for two reasons. One: you ride on the roof, Two: The mountain the train goes down is so steep that it has to switchback several times on the way down. This is done by the Loco pulling the train down the slope and into a siding, then pushing it back out again in the opposite direction a bit further down the slope into another siding before pulling in the original direction again. This continues the whole way down the side of the mountain on track that passed VERY close to the edge of the cliff. The journey from Riobamba to Alausi was actually the most scenic and enjoyable part of the trip even though we derailed twice and were delayed three hours as the driver and few local men sporadically stopped the train, got out and started re-laying the track which had somehow moved since the last trip 2 days ago. If you are doing this trip then overall it is probably best to sit on the right side of the train in terms of the views you will get.'

On to Peru Via 3 Hours in a Police Station

And so we set off for Huaquillas on the Ecuador/Peru border, looking forward to writing this blog with all the pictures we had taken. However, as you now know someone managed to steal our little bag from above our heads on a bus. Tracey has just spent 3 hours in a police station and is happy she doesn´t live in Huaquillas and need a really serious crime solving as even locating the police station proved tricky. We now have a police report and despite the offer of a reward for the safe return of our bag and contents nothing has come up, so we are going to go on to Peru anyway and try to replace some of our stuff once we get there!


6th December 2008

Catch the Thief!
You poor things! How dreadful to lose your camera with what I am sure would have been superb photos. But your descriptions are, as usual, wonderful. And I love your drawings. Fascinating to read where the actual Equator really is! At least you will save other travellers the expense of going into the fake area. Your climb using the crampons etc. sounds exhausting, and terribly debilitating, but I am sure the stunning views made it all worthwhile. Looking forward to the next blog! With my love, Penny

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