A science nerd on tour in Northern Ecuador

I’m such a science nerd. Yesterday I signed on for a full-day tour from Quito, north, to the town of Otavalo. Otavalo has one of South America’s most famous indigenous craft markets (if not THE most famous) – and Saturday is the big day, when the market takes over the entire town. But what was it that interested me most on this tour? Of course – the stop in the Middle of the World (Mitad del Mundo) – The Equator!! A promised glimpse over the rim of the volcano Cuicocha into a crater lake was also a big draw. (Note: This blog post has bonus homework questions and mini-contest for Meteorology students!)

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The modest sign marking the stop along the highway from Quito to Otavalo.

Ecuador has two equatorial monuments. The first is what they now call the ‘fake equator,’ about 300 meters from the geographical Equator. At the fake Equator, they have built a little cultural center/science museum. I’d go there if I had more time and energy – just to see their ‘Coriolis demonstration,’ where water goes down a drain spiraling in different directions on ‘opposite’ sides of the Equator. (Ok, MET students, bonus question: tell me what’s wrong with this exhibit – other than that it’s not actually on the Equator.)

The sundial at the REAL Equator was built in 2005, and it is a science geek’s dream destination (although, you can see it and be done with it in less than an hour). I ran around taking lots of pictures, and by the time we got back to the tour van, I was lecturing an elderly American lady (who tried to tell me that the fake Equator had a better exhibit) about the Coriolis force and why hurricanes can’t form on the Equator. She nodded politely but didn’t believe me until later in the day when she found out I was a college professor. Incidentally, later on, I ended up giving that same lecture, along with a lecture on global warming and what causes the ice age cycles, to the entire back section of the tour van.

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The sundial at the REAL Equator. On the Equinoxes at sunrise and sunset, the shadow of the dial points right along the equatorial line running directly east-west through this circle. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see any shadows during my visit.

The other aspect of this whole thing that I found amusing is that our guide made the claim that you weigh about 1 kg less at the Equator than you do everywhere else. She also stated that the best roses in the world are grown in Ecuador, because along the Equator, with less gravity, the roses can grow taller and straighter.

(Here’s the mini-contest: UNC Meteorology students, past and present, welcome to participate! Was my guide correct? How much less do you actually weigh at the Equator? Please leave your answer in the comments section. Don’t worry, I moderate comments and won’t post it if it’s wrong! First person to post the correct answer, clearly showing your work, will get a postcard – yes, snail mail – from Ecuador.)

Standing with one foot in each hemisphere!

Standing with one foot in each hemisphere!

The Mitad del Mundo was the first stop on our tour, and after that, I was pretty happy to go along with whatever was on the agenda. So, an hour and a half later, we rolled into Otavalo, and I had a stroll around the market.

Lots of amazing color at the  Otavalo market. I was taking photos as discreetly as possible, as I wasn't interested in buying anything - just people-watching - so I didn't want to get any hopes up among the vendors.

Lots of great people-watching and amazing color at the Otavalo market.

I really don’t think I’ve ever been to a market so big. It was a bit surreal – strolling down cobblestone city streets among the chaos. Lots of women were elaborately adorned in traditional attire. I felt like a giant as they passed by – many of them no taller than my rib cage. I was truly amazed by wizened elderly women carrying giant sacks of textiles and food on their backs.

I strolled past many stalls with what looked like hand-woven materials – and many others with cheap shoes, key-chains, and toys made in India or China, ‘North Face’ jacket knock-offs, and even a booth with ‘Hollister’ t-shirts. The most surreal aspect of walking down a sidewalk past all these booths was that on the other side of the sidewalk, you find stores with modern wares – kitchen supplies, washing machines, stereos blasting 80’s dance music.

More color!

My favorite part of the market, however, was the food aisle! Veggies and fruits of all shapes and sizes, colorful beans, flours and spices, cooked pork with the head still attached, and lots of meals being prepared on an open fire, with lots of fresh ingredients. Made me hungry – but I wasn’t ready to test my delicate North American stomach.

Spices, flour, corn and beans in this aisle.

Spices, flour, corn and beans in this aisle.

I think the spices are just as colorful as the textiles.

I think the spices are just as colorful as the textiles.

This photo gives you a glimpse of the size of the crowd at this market. Imagine every street corner in the center of this city looking like this.

This photo gives you a glimpse of the size of the crowd at this market. Imagine every street corner in the center of this city looking like this.

Our next stop made up for the craziness of the market. Lago Cuicocha (which means ‘Lake of the Guinea Pigs’) sits at about 11,000 feet in volcanic crater. The rim of the crater, which forms the sides of the lake are so steep that it’s difficult for vegetation to grow there. There are two steep lava dome islands that occupy the center of the lake. I think this volcano last erupted ~3000 years ago – which makes it an ‘old’ Ecuadorian volcano, especially compared to Pinchincha, which hovers over Quito and last erupted in 1999, blanketing the city in 15 cm of ash.

Lago Cuicocha. Unfortunately, clouds and mist obscured our view of the volcanic rim, but this is not unusual.

Lago Cuicocha. Unfortunately, clouds and mist obscured our view of the volcanic rim, but I guess that’s normal.

I know you’re wondering: what did I buy at Otavalo? While my fellow tourists returned to the van laden in plastic bags full of goodies, I had: a banana, for a snack. I actually spent my money for the day at Mitad del Mundo, on some fancy brochures with details on the sun dial and a very cool little poster of the world from an ‘Equatorian’ perspective. Of course, this will hang in my office when I get home. Yes, I am such a nerd.

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6 thoughts on “A science nerd on tour in Northern Ecuador

  1. Hi Cindy,
    What fun to hear about all of your adventures! I would have loved all of those stops on your tour, but probably the lovely lake most of all. Will you be trying the food eventually? Do you have to give your stomach a sort of adjustment period?

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    • Thanks, Beri! I have generally been frequenting the same restaurants as the locals in Quito – especially those recommended by my B&B hosts, and I haven’t had any problems. Generally, the food is pretty simple – lots of fruit and bread for breakfast, and rice, potatoes and meat for everything else. I’ve also only been drinking bottled water here in Quito, because I’ve heard lots of different opinions about the tap water here. But I haven’t had the guts to try street food yet. I suppose there is a stomach adjustment in that I normally eat a lot of veggies, and that’s just not available in the usual restaurant fare here.

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  2. Cindy, the market was fascinating with the variety of colors. Found out last Thursday (at Bunco) that my friend Amy’s mother Betty (Evans) was born in Quito, Ecuador! She lived there until she was 13, then coming to North America. Small world that she lives here in Hollister!!!! I have been forwarding your emailed blogs to her so she can see how everything looks today. She was fascinated to know you were there. Keep on having fun. Huge hugs from here.

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