How To Visit La Mitad Del Mundo (Don’t) And Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve

Here’s a not-fun experiment you can try at home: Draw a line on the ground and straddle it and tell yourself “I’m at the center of the world.” This will accurately simulate how it feels to visit “La Mitad Del Mundo” in Ecuador, a few miles north of Quito, which I did for some reason this weekend.

These sorts of things always make for uncomfortable tourist traps. I visited the Four Corners in high school (where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet) and had a similar experience. Hey, want to stand in an arbitrary location and pretend like it means something? Here you go.

La Mitad Del Mundo is slightly less ridiculous because there are unique characteristics that the middle of the world boasts, as opposed to a part of the American West that was once just “land” and is now carved up for political and economic purposes. Gravity is different there, to the point where eggs can be balanced on their tops and you’ll weigh a little less than if you were standing at the North Pole. That’s somewhat interesting.

Unfortunately, the site of La Mitad Del Mundo ruins this in two significant ways:

  • The gaudy “city” constructed around the main monument (an admittedly impressive block of stone with a stone globe on top, which people can climb — provided they pay extra — and look out in all directions) is full of either unrelated exhibits or laughably obvious tourist traps such as overpriced craft stands and restaurants that charge exorbitant prices for meals you can buy cheap across the street. Paying $3.50 just to enter the city (a full pass is $7.50) doesn’t exempt you from being pestered by a number of different people who either want you to eat at their restaurant or take a tour through their company.

(Note: I’m not going to rag on the multitudes of tourists taking ridiculous pictures of themselves balancing on the equator line or holding up the stone earth like some Andean Tower of Pisa, save for noting that they exist. This is what tourists do, and for some people a trip here is as much an adventure as any attempt I make to do the same. So, good for them.)

  • The monument — including the yellow line that says “Latitude: 0–0–0” — isn’t actually on the equator. It’s all a sham. The real equator is a few hundreds yards away, and features its own little museum and dividing line and egg balancing experiments. So when you draw a line on your floor at home and pretend you’re in two places at once, you’re doing what people who pay money to enter La Mitad Del Mundo do — pretending.

The fact that La Mitad Del Mundo isn’t on the middle of the earth isn’t the result of some conspiracy to fool tourists and keep the real middle of the earth for the locals. It’s reportedly due to a centuries-old mistake that was only recently corrected by GPS. But this knowledge only threw my decision to visit the “fake” site at all into more doubt. What am I doing here? I asked myself as I circled the monument and read incorrect facts about where it was located. I need to split.

Hey, at least I caught a bird in this shot?

I have long been fascinated by the concept of “getting off the gringo trail,” which I don’t think I am brave enough to actually do (most ideas for trips come courtesy of internet message boards and books, which means that some other gringo has been there before me), but I strive to accomplish constantly, often in small ways. So when I found myself in the center of a gringo clusterfuck, I looked for an antidote.

I stopped into a tourism office in La Mitad Del Mundo and asked about their tour to Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, which is only a few kilometers away. I was told a tour costs $4. We would visit the mirador overlooking the reserve — dominated by a massive caldera — and then return. It would take an hour.

This sounded to me like it would be boring as shit. Instead, I made a run for the exit of the park, hopping over the turnstile when it refused to give way, and caught the next bus going north, which cost $0.25. Any “La Mitad Del Mundo” bus with a yellow placard in the front is heading that way.

Five minutes later, the bus made its last stop at the bottom of a hill, where an enormous blue sign pointed the way to the Pululahua. I got out and walked about a kilometer up a winding cobblestone road, passing statues of the Virgin Mary and tiny cafes that offered Chilean empanadas and tea made from coca leaves.

They keep this Mary in a cage for some reason.

Thus, arriving at the reserve on my own couldn’t have been easier. I signed in, walked past more kitschy restaurants and stores and found myself at the mirador overlooking the caldera, a long-extinct volcano crater. Where there had been once fire and magma was now a field of lush green, patterned with farms and veined with dusty roads that extended into the valley beyond.

So, first of all, Lonely Planet doesn’t have much to say about Pululahua — just a paragraph in its most recent text edition — and so I believe this area is markedly under-appreciated. Secondly, I think most people’s impressions of the reserve are limited to the type of $4 tour I declined, which only takes you to the lookout point and then back to the van. And as vistas go, this one is good, but it’s not Cotacachi or Quilotoa good, so I understand the disappointment. Finally, for some reason I thought “caldera” meant “extinct volcano crater with a lake in it.” There is no lake there. That’s my bad, and it was confusing.

(In my defense, I’ve visited a few calderas here in Ecuador and they all had lakes in them.)

But while most people stood at the mirador and sipped tea, I made my way down a steep, rocky path to the floor of the crater. The only people I passed were Ecuadorians: a couple of older women trudging up the slope with the help of walking sticks, some kids on horses.

Yeah I took a selfie want to fight?

After about 35 minutes of zigzagging, I reached the bottom and the true beauty of the reserve was revealed to me, as well as its size and scope. It was like living in New York City for a few months and discovering that there’s a big-ass park in the center (let’s call it, say, Central Park, though I think Prospect Park is better) where you can disappear into nature — except here no one will try to sell you acid or dirty-water hot dogs. I followed the main road past tall stalks of maize, fields where cows and horses grazed by the dozens, homes where chickens walked in and out of the doorways and farmers who hacked at the soil with machetes and offered a warm wave in greeting. I stopped by a hostel that seemed uninhabited until the owner wandered out and showed me some trails on the map he kept near the kitchen.

This is where my mind was blown. Based on what I’d read in Lonely Planet and online, I was under the impression that I when I hiked down into the Pululahua crater, I’d be at the shore of an enormous lake, which I would appreciate and then take my leave of. The lake part, again, was my fault, but nothing I’d seen about Pululahua had related that you could spend hours hiking through the organic farms that butted up against the crater walls, or hike up one of the nearby hills for a view of the valley, or walk down that valley, miles and miles, past burbling streams and lounging animals and through swarms of fluttering butterflies into the hills beyond. This place was so much larger and more beautiful than I could have imagined.

I felt like Arsenio Hall at a good-ass cheese party, except instead of eating cheese I was in a nature preserve.

It wasn’t until afterwards I learned that the park is over 8,000 acres, that it has 60 types of orchids, that it was Ecuador’s first national park or that its proximity to the equator supposedly gives it “an energy” and that visitors “always feel at peace and want to stay longer.”

That last part sounds like bullshit, but I nearly ruined my time in the reserve for myself by debating aloud whether or not I should just crash at the hostel I passed and do some more hiking tomorrow. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, a toothbrush or contact solution, and I had told my friends in Quito that I’d be back by the afternoon, but the sheer majesty of the area combined with the feeling that I’d missed out by spending three months in Ecuador and only known about this place in my last week here was nearly enough to bear the discomfort of waking up with contacts sticking to my eyeballs. I was crushing on this place, and hard.

Eventually I decided that I’d have to make a return trip here when I came back to Ecuador (one day…), and that I should make the most of the time I had on this day. I walked north, down into the valley, passing the occasional local (this is the only inhabited reserve in Ecuador) and marveling at a new beauty with every corner I turned.

Eventually, I realized there was not enough time to make a loop of the caldera and that I’d have to turn around — the park closes at 5 p.m. I hate hikes like that, but I hadn’t prepared for a long walk and had wasted an hour pretending to be on the equator, so I turned and traced my path backwards, huffing now that the slight decline was now a slight incline (and a slight incline always feels about 10 times more difficult than you predict it will on your way down). With little time to spare, I saw a sign off the main road for a “sendero” that looked out over the hills — this had been recommended to me by the hostel owner but I missed it on my way out — so I scrambled up a hill with my lungs bursting to catch one last look at the valley before I headed back to the trail that leads up to the mirador.

Now, because this is Ecuador, it’s necessary for it to rain once a day. Even if you leave the house at 3 p.m. to blue skies, by 3:30 it will be pouring. So as I began my final ascent back up to the mirador and the exit, I saw storm clouds move in from the west and soon what began as a peaceful drizzle, like walking through some mist, became a downpour.

Because I was racing the clock and have enough experience with Ecuadorian rain showers to know that this could either last four minutes or four hours, I used getting soaked as motivation to get my ass up the hill and out of there. I was drenched after a few minutes but continued to climb, straining against my body’s own wishes and my lungs’ inclinations to simply stop doing their job. The air was thin and wet and offered little help. Eventually the rain let up and a golden light shone down into the caldera, but I was too tired to fish my phone from my soaking backpack. Just kidding, I did that, but no photos I took could capture the energy that had descended across the land. I guess that’s just for me.

I made it to the top a little past five to find the place deserted, but snuck past the guard station through an unlocked door and back onto the country road I’d taken from the bus stop. Wet and cold, I waddled down the hill to the bus, which swung past La Mitad Del Mundo again before heading out to serve a number of small Ecuadorian towns I’d never get to know, because the world is just too big.

Before taking a final bus back to Quito’s La Ofelia station in the north of the city — just a 20-or-so minute ride, making this excursion one of the easiest you can take from the capital — I stopped in a restaurant and ordered a plate of fritada. I’d only had fruit and nuts to eat that day, and so I dug into the dish with ferocity. Fritada means different things in different restaurants and regions, but the basic ingredients are food on top of other food. Here, it was broiled steak on a bed of maize, alongside sweet plantains, green plantains, potatoes, tomato and onion, popcorn, more corn (but less sweet and larger kernels compared to what we eat in the U.S.), and as much hot sauce as I could stand. I also pounded several lemonades and a bottle of water, waiting on a cerveza until I got back to the city.

As soon as I left the restaurant, the next bus for Quito pulled up across the street and I raced to jump on. But the sunset over the mountains beyond the walls of the city warranted one last picture, so here that is:

I love that La Mitad and Pululahua are so close to each other. They are perfect antonyms. La Mitad is “worth visiting” (again, it is not) because other people tell us so. Pululahua’s worth needs no explanation. It’s beauty is not the result of human intervention (though the neat rows of corn and other crops give the land a deeper and more important quality) but natural forces.

One costs money; the other, only your time. One is fake; the other genuine. La Mitad is a trap because you get there and want to leave but feel inclined to stay because you just paid money to get in and besides, I guess this is cool? Pululahua is a trap because you get there and feel like you could pitch a tent on the ground and stay forever. It’s a nice dichotomy that I urge people not to experience fully: Don’t waste your time finding out what a sham La Mitad is. Go to Pululahua straight away and get a better understanding of the area’s magic.

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