Ecuador: The pyramids of the French mission

In two earlier posts I told you about the French geodesic mission (1735-1745) and the fact that their scientific work gave the beautiful country of Ecuador its name. 

Even before leaving France, it was decided that the scientists would leave the Audiencia de Quito a monument. A monument that would honor the work of the scientists, as well as their visit to the country. 

It was Charles-Marie de la Condamine – one of the leaders of the expedition – who was responsible for the project. He had to decide what kind of monument to build & where to place it.

Painting of Charles-Marie de la Condamine, one of the leaders of the French mission to Ecuador
Charles-Marie de la Condamine
  • Note: Many people nowadays think the Frenchmen left the country the famous Mitad del Mundo monument – the tourist attraction just north of Ecuador’s capital Quito. As far as I know, and despite what many guides will tell you, the French scientific mission had nothing to do with that monument, nor its location.   
The monument Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador
The Mitad del Mundo-monument, with the statues of the members of the expedition in front

The pyramids of Ecuador

De la Condamine decided he wanted to build two pyramids. Two monuments to mark the baseline they used at the start of their scientific mission in 1736. 

The goal of their mission had been to “measure the Earth”. Or more specific, to measure the length of a degree of latitude at the Equator, between Quito and the southern city of Cuenca. The method they used was Triangulation. For a short explanation of that method, see my earlier post on the French mission.

The measurements in were generally taken over long distances, from one mountaintop to another in beautiful Ecuador
The measurements were generally taken over long distances, from one mountaintop to another.

The scientists had found the perfect spot for this baseline just northeast of Quito. On the wide plain of Yaruquí, from where the scientist had their first views of the beautiful northern part of Ecuador. The baseline proofed to be just over 12 kilometers long, around 7,5 miles.

Together with another member of the expedition – Jean-Louis de Morainville – De la Condamine designed the pyramids that would mark both ends of the baseline. 

Decorating the monuments

To decorate the pyramids, De la Condamine ordered big stone plaques to be placed on their sides. Engraved plaques to commemorate the expedition, and foremost the mission’s results.

As happened often in Ecuador at the time – and still does – the construction of the pyramids did take much longer as planned (over a year). Besides the continues hard wind, there were many other obstacles. Like workmen that did’t show up. Construction material which didn’t arrive or was stolen. Authorities that slowed down the work. As wel as, local habitants that were suspicious of the presence of the foreigners.  

  • Note: The plaques were made out of rock, found in one of the gorges that bordered the plain of Yaruquí. After they were cut & chiseled out, they were hoisted up to be placed on the pyramids. In one case, just when one of these plaques was hoisted up, a hard wind made it tumble down & break down in a thousand pieces. Another event that slowed down the construction of the monuments.

Besides the plaques, De la Condamine decided to place small silver plates inside the pyramids. These plates were engraved with the same text as the plaques, and placed in two lead boxes to protect them. 

The pyramids were furthermore decorated with a French crown, some fleur-de-lys, and other minor symbols. 

Spanish decision to demolish the pyramids

Unfortunately soon after the pyramids were finished, an order arrived from Spain to demolish them. This was a consequence of a formal protest by the two Spanish participants of the mission. According to them the French didn’t – on the plaques – adequately acknowledge their role, nor that of the Spanish crown in the scientific expedition.

  • Note: After some initial hesitations, De la Condamine proved willing to make some minor changes to the text on the plaques. However, at that time the decision of Spain’s King Fernando VI to demolish them was already taken. It may have been the main reason for the Frenchman to put the silver plates inside the pyramids, with the original text.

Anyway, after the French mission ended and most scientists had left – some of them stayed behind in Ecuador – it didn’t take long for the local habitants to demolish the pyramids. Carrying the building blocks away for their own use. Besides that, the two silver commemorative plates disappeared. They were never recovered. 

Drawing included in a book written by mountaineer Edward Whymper about his visit to beautiful Ecuador
Years later, the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, as well as the famous mountaineer Edward Whymper, found one of the plaques at a nearby hacienda. It was used as a stepping stone for mounting horses

The end result was the total destruction of the monuments. Only minor details remained.

Request to rebuild the pyramids

When Alexander von Humboldt was traveling through the area (1802), he went looking for the remains. He didn’t find too much left. Besides the mentioned plaque at the Hacienda of Oyambaro, he recovered a piece of a fleur-de-lys that once adorned the monuments and took it home. Before leaving the Audiencia de Quito Von Humboldt asked the authorities to rebuild the pyramids. A request heard, but not fulfilled.

Painting of Alexander von Humboldt & Aimé Bonpland on their journey through the Americas
After the French mission, the German Von Humboldt was another famous scientist to visit Ecuador, together with his French companion Aimé Bonpland

However in 1836 President Vicente Rocafuerte – one of the first presidents of the independent republic of “Ecuador” (see earlier post: What’s in a name?) – decided to rebuild them. He made that decision after a formal request from the French government. These monuments were inaugurated exactly a century after the French scientists arrived in Ecuador. 

Luckily there were still enough traces left to rebuild the monuments at the same spot. Finally the only difference between the old & new pyramids would be the decorations. Certain details that weren’t replaced. Like the orginal plaques, the French crown or the fleur-de-lys.

In conclusion, the actual pyramids aren’t the original ones, but are still located at both ends of what once was the baseline of the historical measurements. Still commemorating the work of the French expedition in the beautiful Andean country of Ecuador.

Both pyramids are still standing

Although both pyramids still stand, almost nobody in Ecuador has ever heard of them, nor knows where to find them. 

Both monuments are very dilapidated, mainly because they lack attention. Crazy, when you think of their significance. Not only in a scientific sense, but more so because of the fact that the expedition left the country its name. 

Furthermore, they aren’t exactly big. In comparison to the most famous pyramids – the pyramids of Cheops in Egypt – they are miniscule. About 5-6 meters high, maximum 4-5 meters broad. I would say, not too much work to maintain them.

When visiting them these days, you soon notice that in the past authorities have only sporadicly paid attention to the pyramids. Partially restored, periodically painted over. In other times, somebody has placed a small commemorative plaque on the sides. Mostly done by representatives of the French or Ecuadorian government.  

A visit to the pyramid of Oyambaro, Ecuador

In the case of the Pyramid of Oyambaro, there has been an attempt to construct a small park around it. A place for locals or visitors to gather. A unique lookout point as well, because the view over a big part of northern Ecuador is really beautiful. A historical view that doesn’t differ much from the view the Frenchmen enjoyed almost three centuries ago.

Drawing of the view the frenchmen enjoyed from the Oyambaro-end of the baseline.
Beautiful view over a big part of northern country, from the pyramid of Oyambaro, Ecuador
The drawing illustrated one of the books the French scientists left us after their mission. The photo I took during one of my visits to the Pyramid of Oyambaro

I was lucky enough to visit both pyramids on the same day. An adventure in itself. In company of my wife Wendy & daughter Lisa. 

The first I visited was the Pyramid of Oyambaro, which wasn’t hard to find. The monument is  located very near the road that connects Pifo with Santa Rosa de Cusubamba (the E35). Very near also to the entrance road to the airport. You can still visit the monument, although the last time I went there, even the park around it was a little bit of a mess.

Pyramid of Oyambaro, Ecuador
Pyramid of Oyambaro, Ecuador
Pyramid of Oyambaro, Ecuador
Pyramid of Oyambaro

A visit to the pyramid of Caraburo, Ecuador

The other one though, the Pyramid of Caraburo, is located very near the airport of Tababela. The moment I was searching for it (2012), the airport was still under construction. So, I had to ask for permission at the main gate of the construction site. 

At the gate I found two guards. The first one I talked to said resolutely “No”, but fortunately the second one was listening in. This second guard was prepared to call a supervisor at the site and ask permission to visit the pyramid. As it was a holiday and nobody was working, he allowed us in.

Aeropuerto de Quito, Ecuador, 2012, still under construction
The Airport of Tababela, 2012, still under construction.

After about 4 kilometers (2,5 miles), the supervisor was even waiting for us & guided us to the location of the pyramid, which was not so easy to find at the time. 

In the footsteps of the French mission

I felt elevated, adventurous, glorious, … emotional even. Not only because I was in the middle of writing the story of the French mission, but more so because I felt I was – for the first time – actually in their footsteps. 

Simultaneously I had a big smile on my face. Mainly because there was a hard wind blowing over the plain of Yaruquí. It felt as a real sandstorm sometimes. Something that didn’t surprise me, because the Frenchmen had told me all about it in their stories. A sensational feeling!

Nowadays the Pyramid of Caraburo is located very near the entrance road to the airport, but well hidden. You can get there, but the monument is formally located on private property. Too bad! Not only because of historical reasons, but also because it’s not too difficult to open the area to the public.

People have a right to visit the monument. In honor of the courageous Frenchmen and their nearly impossible mission, and in honor of the name of the country.

Other monuments in Ecuador

At the moment I was writing the book about the French mission, I discovered there were several other monuments besides the pyramids. Monuments spread all over the beautiful country of Ecuador. As well as streets, schools, markets named after some of the members of the mission, mostly after Charles-Marie de la Condamine. 

In 2012 we made a beautiful trip through our home country Ecuador. A trip in search of these other monuments. A tour I needed to make to be able to finish my book on the mission, De Aarde is niet rond (Unfortunately, only available in Dutch, link by clicking on the title or by contacting me directly.)

Bookcover of De Aarde is niet rond (Dutch for The Earth isn’t round)
The Earth isn’t round

Coming up:

I will tell you all about our tour of our beautiful country Ecuador in the next post, the fourth & final post: The Monuments of the French mission.



For an overview of all travel posts of my blog, go to: the Home Page.

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