La Mitad del Mundo
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Nestled in the Andes mountains at just over 9200 ft., the capital city of Quito is a must stop on every South American itinerary. While this bustling city features all the amenities of a cosmopolitan capital (including your typical fine dining and nightlife in the Mariscal Sucre district, as well as my recommended Quito hostel, Travelers Inn), the 3 main attractions in the Quito area are undoubtedly touring the Old Town, the Otavalo Indian Market, and heading up to straddle the Equator at La Mitad del Mundo. Seeing as the city was in the midst of a political coup (see Quito Coup), I was only able to squeeze in one of these three destinations, yet I fully plan to return to the city and take in the other treasures on offer.
Regarding La Mitad del Mundo I am going to be brutally honest: being at the Equator is pretty cool, but the actual setup of La Mitad del Mundo leaves much to be desired. It takes about an hour and a half to travel from downtown Quito up to the actual Equator, and when you get there there is a nominal $2.50 to go inside and “straddle the line”. If you want to go inside one of the museums there is an additional charge, and while there are some fairly decent restaurants and shops inside of the compound the entire experience reeks somewhat of your classic tourist trap. My overall thoughts are that straddling the Equator (which, just should you want to know, is reputed to not even be exactly on the Equator) is a unique experience that is worth taking advantage of, but don’t go into the journey as if it is going to be a life changing experience.
What is an incredible side trip and well worth the money, however, is a short one hour trip up to Pululahua Crater where you can peer down into the crater of an inactive volcano that last erupted around 500 B.C. What is unique about the crater, however, is that the entire valley floor is covered in farm settlements and maintains a population of just over 100 families who have lived inside of the crater for over 1000 years. Impossibly peaceful situated just below the rolling mist, the entire town has 1 hostel, 1 road, electricity but no TV, and a one room schoolhouse that currently has a total of 12 students. On weekends, the local people of Pululahua take the hour-long donkey trail up the switchbacking ridge to ply their goods at the local market, only to descend later in the day into the misty pit of potential fire from which they and their ancestors originally came. I highly recommend that anyone who is paying a visit to La Mitad del Mundo take this worthy side trip and glimpse the intracies of a unique culture who is content to farm inside of a crater at the center of the Earth.