Where can you stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere? How can you feel chilly standing at the Equator? Is that a real shrunken head? The answer to all of these questions and more can be found at a site called Middle of the Earth, located a few kilometers north of Quito, Ecuador.
Legend has it that an ancient and powerful ruler of Peru wanted to give both of his sons a portion of his kingdom. He carved out a piece of Peruvian land located at the middle of the earth. The land became known as Ecuador. Its name referencing the Equator that crosses right through the heart of it.
In 1736, the French Academy of Sciences sent an expedition to Ecuador to find the exact location of the Equator, in order to calculate the circumference of the Earth. Once they determined the site, a stone monument was erected at San Antonio de Pichincha, and “Mitad del Mundo” (Middle of the World) city was founded. The site houses museums, a planetarium and several restaurants. If you feel hungry, try a bite of cuy, the local delicacy. What’s cuy? Cooked guinea pig.
Shrunken Human Head
The French almost got it right – using instruments they had available to them at the time. But the Incas who came to Ecuador in 1460 discovered the true center of the earth, in a much earlier time. These people, whose tribal name means “Children of the Sun”, were excellent astronomers. As proof of this, when G.P.S. positioning was developed over 500 years later, scientists decided that it was the Incas who found the exact spot and without the use of sophisticated scientific instruments.
To visit the true G.P.S. center of the earth, travel a few yards beyond Mitad del Mundo City to the outdoor exhibit of Museo de Sitio Intinan. Here, visitors can wander through a replica Inca village with thatched huts, complete with authentic furniture, pots and utensils. A multi-lingual guide gives detailed accounts of the archeology and culture of the people who lived here.
Is that a real shrunken head? In the remote Amazon region of Ecuador, the warring tribes used to shrink the heads of captured enemies. This practice may not have been entirely abandoned in the most remote parts of the jungle. Standing just inside a thatched house the guide explains how and why this was done. There is a fascinating, yet gristly pictogram on the wall of a thatched hut showing the process step-by-step. The head currently on display was the son of a tribal chief. Feathered earrings hang from pierced ears and you can see the stitches where the bluish eyelids have been sewn shut.
Further down the path, another hut is home to a sampling of crawly creatures that abound in the Amazon jungle. One display case holds a huge dead snake submerged in murky Amazon River water. Another glass box contains an orange spider, its leg-span larger than the hand of a grown man. A small bottle holds a poisonous fish.
In the common area, the guide gives a demonstration on how to use a blowgun. Give it a try. You’ll find it heavier and harder to do than it looks.
Walk by an open Inca burial mound. The dead would lie curled up in fetal position, inside of a jar. Food, drink and personal items were placed around the body, so they would have something to eat and drink in the next life. Then, members of their family were put to sleep and buried alive in the mound, to accompany the deceased into the next life.
A few steps away, a guide takes you through a series of demonstrations. Demonstration stations are centered over a 3 inch wide red stripe painted on the rocky ground that runs the length of the exhibit. This stripe marks the G.P.S. location of the Equator. The first station shows how a solar clock works. It is so accurate; you can set your watch by its time.
Did you know that you could stand a raw egg on its end, at the Equator? It takes a steady hand and a little practice, but the guide shows visitors how to balance an egg on the head of a nail. It should rest there without falling off. If you can do it, you get a certificate.
Next, the guide demonstrates Korioli centrifugal forces using a sink full of water. At the Equator, water drains from a sink by falling straight down into the bucket below. Once the sink empties, she lifts it up and carries it a few feet north of the Equator and pours water back into the sink. When she pulls the plug, the water swirls down the drain counterclockwise. In the final part of the demonstration, she carries the sink a few feet south of the Equator. This time, the water drains clockwise.
Museu de Sitio Intinan is not in many guidebooks. It’s not crowded so you can spend time admiring the wonders of this little-known part of the country. Bring a jacket because here you’re standing at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. When the cool mountain breezes blow, it’s chilly.
Middle of the World City is about 20 minutes drive from the capital city of Quito. If you come, the entrance fee to the “Middle of the World City” is $2.00, to the Planetarium $1.50. Visiting hours: Monday through Thursday 0900 – 1800 Friday, Saturday and Sunday 0900 – 1900. Museo de Sitio Intinan Ethnic Museum entrance fee is $3.00. Bring your passport. Have it stamped “Mitad Del Mundo – Ecuador LAT: 0°-0°-0°”.