Looking for the Equator


Just the travel to Ecuador alone was a major undertaking. The men set out by ship from the west coast of France in May of 1735, landing in November in the port city of Cartagena, Colombia, where two Spanish scientists joined them. They continued up the coast, traveling west to the hot and humid port of Puerto Bello, an important city for transferring loot from the Inca Empire to ships headed back to Spain. The place had been named by Columbus himself who arrived there in 1502.

Until the building of the canal transformed the crossing of the isthmus into a quick trip, Panama tours were arduous, insect-filled journeys. As all pre-20th century visitors did, La Condamine’s group traveled the short, grueling distance overland by mule and along the Chagres River. The men luckily avoided the tropical diseases that had squelched the dreams of many traveling this route to reach the city of Panama. Here, in what is today the city’s historic area, Casco Viejo, a popular tourist attraction for visitors who travel to Panama, they waited to begin their Ecuador tours for a ship that took until February of 1736 to arrive.

When they reached mainland Ecuador, they were dropped in the port city of Manta on the central coast, south of the equator. To travel from the Pacific coast to Quito, the city that would become their headquarters, the men separated. One group headed north on horseback escorted by local government officials who knew their way around. Their destination was the Esmeraldas River, north of the equator that would take them to a recently constructed road to Quito. The other scientists traveled south by sea to Guayaquil, allowing them to take more established roads. On a journey that had taken over a year, their Ecuador tours were just beginning.

Using surveyor techniques and the stars, the scientists took measurements at locations north and south of Quito. They were just beginning their analysis when they learned that the Arctic expedition had finished theirs. The Arctic group had concluded that indeed the Earth’s sphere did flatten at the north (and presumably the south) pole. The South American contingent continued their Ecuador tours, locating the Earth’s widest point, its equator.

Almost a hundred years later, in 1830, the country finally succeeded in establishing itself as a nation separate from its neighbors and free of Spanish control. Its first constitution named the new republic Ecuador, Spanish for equator. Visitors who travel to Ecuador may visit the monument erected to honor the European accomplishment, located a few miles north of Quito.