Américas / May-June 2005
By Larry Luxner
Heading south toward Quito along the Pan-American Highway, motorists can't miss Ecuador's most famous landmark: a concrete globe and painted yellow line marking latitude 0º0'0", where the Northern Hemisphere meets the Southern.
For years, tourists and locals alike have flocked to this monument, known in Spanish as Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world). There, they pose for pictures straddling the line, then wander off to buy plastic key rings, postcards, T-shirts and whatever other "Mitad del Mundo" trinkets the vendors happen to be selling that day.
Little do the tourists know that they're not really standing on the Equator.
Thanks to Global Positioning Satellite technology, scientists have discovered that the yellow line is actually 300 meters off. For this reason — and also because the Mitad del Mundo monument has become somewhat of an embarrassment — the municipality of Quito plans to tear the whole complex down and build a new one.
"Mitad del Mundo is not tacky, it's horrible," said Cristina Guerrero de Miranda, Quito's promotion and marketing director. "If it were in the hands of the Americans, they would have built something really fantastic."
That's what Quito plans to do, but it'll take at least $30 million, according to Pablo Burbano de Lara, director of tourism for the Quito Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"The idea is to demolish what we have now and build a completely new cultural theme park," he told Travel Agent. "We're still looking for investors. This will be a concession to a private operator. At this point, we've been meeting with investors and banks to get the necessary financing. I think we have 75% of the money lined up. We still need to get the other 25%."
Such an ambitious undertaking is not out of the question for Quito, many of whose 1.3 million inhabitants live in poverty despite the country's oil wealth. In Guayaquil — Ecuador's financial and commercial capital — hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on Malecón 2000, a waterfront redevelopment project that also included the restoration of Guayaquil's colorful, historic Las Peñas district.
While Quito has traditionally attracted far more tourists than Guayaquil, the city has also had its share of problems.
"For 30 years, Quito's historical center was invaded by street vendors, scaring away tourism," said Guerrero de Miranda. "Everybody flew into Quito, but only a small percentage stayed. Four years ago, we got a new mayor, Paco Moncayo, who started promoting tourism. He threw the vendors off the streets and put them into shopping centers. Now the historical sites are open to the public, and we have tourist information offices throughout the city."
Yet Quito's most famous tourist draw is still Mitad del Mundo, located about a 20-minute taxi drive north of the city.
Burbano de Lara said the monument is visited by around 400,000 people a year; 65% of them are Ecuadoreans, the other 35% foreigners, mainly Americans and Europeans.
"The real objective is to have a better showcase," he said. "We did a survey two years ago of Quito's main tourist attractions. Mitad del Mundo was the most visited, but the least recommended. It's obvious that it doesn't offer too much. You put one foot in one Northern Hemisphere, the other foot in the Southern, and that's it."
While the 50-year-old monument itself will remain, the rest of the complex will be completely redone. It will also be expanded from the current seven hectares to 11 hectares, in order for the actual Equatorial line to be moved to its correct position.
"We are moving the line a little bit," he said. "With today's GPS technology, you can be much more precise."
The new theme park will encompass five distinct areas devoted to Ecuador's plant and animal life, cultural diversity, pre-Hispanic arts and crafts, and the subject of the Equator itself. Among other things, the new Mitad del Mundo will boast a planetarium, an IMAX theater and a food court with restaurants featuring authentic Ecuadorean cuisine. A luxury hotel may also be built adjacent to the site, said Burbano de Lara.
To pay for all this, tourists will be charged $10 admission, up from the current $1.00. If all goes according to plan, the project should be completed by the end of 2008.