Quito, Ecuador has the honour of being one of the first two sites selected for UNESCO World Heritage status (the other was Krakow, Poland). The city is also the 2nd highest capital in the world, with an average elevation of 2,850 metres (the highest is La Paz, Bolivia; in 3rd place is Thimpu, Bhutan).
But when it comes to proximity to the equator, Quito reigns supreme. The equator lies just 25 kilometres from the city centre, and it sits within a kilometre of the city outskirts.
The founding of Quito
Quito was founded in 1534 by conquistador Diego de Almagro (who fought alongside Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and who, in 1535, claimed the lands of Chile for Spain). Quito was absorbed into the Viceroyalty of Peru (which extended across most of Spanish South America) until the year 1717, when it switched to the Viceroyalty of New Granada (which extended across Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and parts of Venezuela).
In 1822 Antonio José de Sucre, under the command of independence leader Simón Bolívar, fought the Battle of Pichincha against the royalist army on the slopes of eponymously named volcano (located on the outskirts of the city). The battle, which led to the defeat of the royalists and the surrender of Quito, was fought at 3,500 metres elevation, which surely makes it one of the most altitudinous battles in history.
Quito went on to join Simón Bolívar’s Republic of Gran Colombia, before, in 1830, becoming the capital of a newly independent Ecuador.
Cathedral of Quito
The conquistadors began building their first church in Quito as soon as the city was founded (1534). The Cathedral of Quito took the place of that first church. Commenced in 1562, the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1806 (it was set back by a few earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), and is now the preeminent Catholic church in Ecuador.
The cathedral has seen its share of drama, the most theatrical of which was perhaps the poisoning of the Bishop of Quito, José Ignacio Checa y Barba, on Good Friday, 1870. The bishop drank consecrated wine to which strychnine had been added.
Antonio José de Sucre, who liberated Quito from the Spanish in 1822 (who served once as president of Peru, and once as president of Bolivia) is buried here. His wife was a Quiteña.
Basílica del Voto Nacional
Basílica del Voto Nacional (the Basilica of the National Vow), at 115 metres in height, towers over the historic centre of Quito. Construction of the basilica began in 1892, it was mostly complete by 1909, but wasn’t consecrated until 1988.
It’s currently the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas.
Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the twin towers, from where there stunning views over Quito and the surrounding landscape.
It also provides the opportunity – in case you ever found yourself feeling so inclined – to admire a watchtower from the inside.
Mitad del Mundo
The Monument to the Equator, built in 1982 at the town of Mitud del Mundo, is a memorial to the 1736 French Geodesic expedition that attempted to measure the shape of the world. The monument at Mitad del Mundo has a line running through it that is meant to demarcate the exact location of the equator.
Only it’s in the wrong spot.
Advancements in technology have determined (using the World Geodetic System) that the true equator lies about 240 metres north of the monument.
Intiñan Solar Museum
Two hundred odd metres north of the Mitad del Mundo monument is the Intiñan Solar Museum, a private museum that claims to be situated directly on top of the true equator.
The museum is more of a believe-it-or-not amusement park; tour guides lead tourists through a series of fun tricks that are meant to demonstrate the Coriolis effect, or lack of (executed with a movable sink, and by balancing an upturned egg on the head of a nail, amongst other things), but it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Don’t believe a word they say.
Read more on the historic centre of Quito in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.