Ecuador – Monuments of the French mission

Introduction to our journey

In preparation of a book I was writing at the time, I made a journey in 2012 through my beautiful homecountry Ecuador. Together with my wife Wendy and daughter Lisa.

We baptized it the “Condamine-trip”, after Charles-Marie de la Condamine, one of the leaders of the French mission that visited the country between 1736 and 1745.

The main goal was to visit as many “monuments” as possible related to the French mission. That is, the discoverable monuments, besides the almost unknown pyramids, introduced to you in an earlier post: Ecuador – The pyramids; two small pyramids that mark the baseline to the northeast Quito.

In two even earlier posts, I told you the story of how the French mission, while “Measuring the Earth” , provided the country with Its name, Ecuador. A name it chose when the Audiencia de Quito became independent in 1830. Liberating itself from Spain, but also of its bigger neighbours, Peru and Gran Colombia.

Although the French visit took place almost three centuries ago, you still can find some old signs and monuments remembering their presence. Besides the many schools, market places, streets, and others, that are named after them.

Named not only after the French scientists, but also after the two Spanish assistants, Juan & Ulloa. And also after the one and only Ecuadorian scientist who accompanied the mission. Together with La Condamine, Pedro Vicente Maldonado’s name is probably the one most used. 

Journey through Ecuador: Quito, the capital

In and around Quito you’ll find several monuments that remind us of the French expedition. 

Mitad del Mundo monument

Just to the North of Quito you’ll find the famous Mitad del Mundo monument. Although – as I wrote earlier – the French had nothing to do with this touristic attraction, they are present in and around it. For example, the main avenue – that walks up to the monument – is guarded by the statues of all the expeditionaries. 

Start of the journey. Visit to the Mitad del Mundo monument, Ecuador
The bustes of the scientists are lined up along the main avenue leading up to the Mitad del Mundo monument. Placed their in 1936, exactly 200 years after their arrival in Ecuador.

More attention is paid to the mission in the local museums around the Mitad del Mundo monument. As well as to the Second French mission (1901-1906). A expedition that partially repeated the work of their predecessors, again making a journey through Ecuador from north to south. 

The Observatory of Quito

In the center of Quito, in the Alameda park, you’ll find the Observatory (inaugurated in 1873). 

In front of the entrance you’ll find the only plaque that survived the demolition of the pyramids that marked the baseline. Due to time, rain and sun, you can barely read the words on the plaque anymore. Therefore, to conserve what is left, it’s protected by plexiglass, on which you’ll find the original text.

A plaque that remembers the work and long journey of the French through Ecuador
The only plaque rescued from the pyramids

Inside the Observatory you’ll find a museum. The first item you encounter is a commemorative marble stone that also reminds us of the work of the French mission. In the middle of a scientific text in Latin, there’s a copper bar. A bar that’s exactly one “meter” long. 

The plaque that commemorates the experiment to measure a “meter”, by De la Condamine
The plaque that commemorates the experiment to measure a “mètre”, by De la Condamine
Standardizing measurements
  • Note: At the time of the expedition many scientists in Europe tried to standardize measurements between countries. Not only the standard measurements for distance, but also for temperature, volume, weight, and others. 
  • Note: To standardize distance, the French wanted to introduce the “mètre” and scientists visiting Ecuador played a part in that process. By way of measuring the exact distance of a clock’s pendulum at the Equator. The result of this experiment was cast in copper (the copper bar above). Supposedly perfect material to guarantee perfection at the time, as other material – other metal types, stone or wood – caused unacceptable deviations due to the climate, temperature, humidity, et cetera. 
  • Note: Although the French mission hoped to stimulate the acceptance of the “mètre” as a standard measurement, it took until the French Revolution to get it accepted. Not only by the French, but also by other countries. That is, only partially, because most of the Anglo-Saxon countries never did.

Besides these two plaques, you’ll find many other items & instruments in the Observatory’s museum. Not one of them though used by the members of the first French expedition (some though left behind by the second mission). However, the exhibited ones give you an idea of the instruments they used, like the quadrant, the astrolabe or the sextant. 

In front of the Observatory

Outside the Observatory, in front of the main gate, there’s another monument. A monument left behind bij the Second French geodesic mission. Remembering both missions. This artful monument is surrounded by busts of the main characters of the first expedition. 

Monument in front of Quito’s historical observatory, Ecuador
Monument in front of Quito’s historical Observatory. The central monument was inaugurated in 1913 – a few years after the Second French expedition had left. The surrounding busts were placed there in 1936.
Monument that remembers the journey of the French expeditionaries through Ecuador

Journey through Ecuador: the Central highlands


After Quito our journey through Ecuador continued on to the central highlands. The area where Pedro Vicente Maldonado came from. Although he was born in Riobamba (that is, the former Riobamba!), we first noticed his “presence in stone” in Baños – where a school is named after him.

In the middle of Baños, the Pedro V. Maldonado school.
In the middle of Baños, the Pedro V. Maldonado school.

After visiting beautiful Baños (birthplace of our daughter Lisa) we went to Riobamba – the town where my life’s journey in Ecuador began in 1990 (see About me -section). 

In the middle of Riobamba you’ll find an impressive, sky high statue of Maldonado. It’s placed in the central & most beautiful park of the Sultana de los Andes. A park therefore called Parque Maldonado. Here you’ll also find the town’s most beautiful church. Also the oldest church. 

Statue of Pedro Vicente Maldonado in the center of Riobamba, Ecuador
Statue of Pedro Vicente Maldonado in the center of Riobamba, Ecuador
Statue of Pedro Vicente Maldonado in the center of Riobamba, Ecuador
Maldonado’s map of the Audiencia de Quito
In the local Museo de la ciudad you’ll find some items that remember Riobamba’s most famous townsman, Pedro Vicente Maldonado. The most memorable are the printer plates of a map he made of, what was then still called, the Audiencia de Quito.
Cajabamba (the former Riobamba)

Leaving Riobamba, we headed out to the nearby town of Cajabamba. A much smaller place, but the original site of the city of Riobamba. The place were Maldonado was actually born. 

Statues of Maldonado & De la Condamine in Cajabamba, Ecuador
Statues of Maldonado (left) & De la Condamine in Cajabamba
  • Note: Cajabamba, the former Riobamba, was almost totally devastated by an heavy earthquake in February 1797. Years after Maldonado had died. Formally we must call Maldonado a Riobambeño, but it’s understandable that the local people prefer calling him a Cajabambeño. Simultaneously, it’s debatable whether you can call him an Ecuatoriano, as the name of the country didn’t exist during his lifetime. As “Ecuador” wasn’t independent yet, but still part of the Spain and the Viceroyalty of Peru.  
  • Note: Maldonado accompanied De la Condamine to Europe in 1743. A real adventure, because the Frenchman travelled the length of the Amazon River to Brasil before crossing the Atlantic from Cayenne, French Guyana. Maldonado was honored as a scientist in Paris and London, before traveling home again. However, while in London, he fell ill and died (1748). His remains never returned to his home country, but still lay buried in England. 
While on a journey through Ecuador, you can’t miss a visit to its highest mountain, the Chimborazo.
While on our journey through Central part of Ecuador, at the look out for the monuments of the scientific expedition, we regularly got a view of my old friend. My favorite mountain in the country: the Chimborazo

Southwards to Cuenca

After visiting Cajabamba we continued our journey through Ecuador southward. 

While Ecuador’s capital Quito was used by the Frenchmen as a base to start their measurements, the southern city of Cuenca was the end station. The beautiful colonial city of Cuenca still houses several places that remember the French visitors. 

First of all there’s the old cathedral, which the scientists used as one of the last observation posts for their measurements.

The old Cathedral of Cuenca, Ecuador.
The tower of the main cathedral of Cuenca (at the time) was used as an observation post
A plaque on the front of the cathedral of Cuenca, remembers the French expedition.
A plaque on the front of the cathedral remembers the French expedition

Also in the town’s center you’ll find the Plaza San Sebastián. It’s here that during a bull fight (1739) one of the Frenchmen – doctor Jean Seniergues – got into a fight, supposedly over a local beauty. The confrontation ended in a pursuit through the streets of Cuenca and injuries by a knife, from which the doctor soon died.

Drawing of the square where instead of chasing the bull, the French doctor Seniergues got into a fight, which in the end did cost him his life. (From De la Condamine’s Journal du Voyage, 1751).
The Plaza San Sebastián, Cuenca, Ecuador
The square nowadays, the Plaza San Sebastián
Frances Urco, south of Cuenca

A little to the south of Cuenca, there’s a small hill called Frances Urco, the hill of the French in Quichua, As we approached it from the northern side we had to climb the steep hill through knee high vegetation. Only to discover that on the south side there’s a marked path leading up, partially provided with stairs….. what a joke!

On the top op Frances Urco, we enjoyed a marvelous view of the area, and also found a proud, although somewhat somber, small obelisk to remember the French visit.

The obelisk that remember the French journey to the hill of Frances Urco
The Obelisk on top of the Frances Urco hill, to the south of Cuenca

All in all, another adventure in the footsteps of the scientific mission. And, better still, also a place where local people actively take action to keep the past alive. Opening up an historical place in Ecuador to visitors (Instead of closing it down, like one of the pyramids near Quito). 

  • Note: A year after our visit, in 2013, the obelisk was decorated by a commemorative plaque… and was painted over. Great initiative!

A quick break at the Coast

After Cuenca we headed to the coast by way of the Cajas National Park and Guayaquil. Knowing full well that most expeditionaries started their journey through Ecuador just there, in Guayaquil. After a relatively short boat ride they continued their journey by mule and on foot to Ecuador’s capital Quito. A hard journey up to 3000 m.a.s.l. and more, taking them two and a half weeks to complete. 

We mainly visited the coastal region to relax a little. We didn’t visit any “Condamine-trip” monuments. The only one I really know about you’ll find in Pedernales, where two of the Frenchman passed through on an alternative northern route to the capital (De la Condamine, with Pierre Bouguer). 

And back to the highlands

We ended our journey through Ecuador in the Hacienda La Ciénega, which nowadays is a hotel. A historical place with a long history, where the Frenchmen stayed while taking measurements in the central part of Ecuador around the Cotopaxi volcano. 

A memorial stone in front of the hacienda remembers their presence
  • Note: About 60 years later the famous German scientist stayed in the room above at the Hacienda La Ciénega.
Visit to the Cotopaxi, with Wendy & Lisa

Surely, the French left other monuments along the way. During our journey through Ecuador we visited the most important ones.

But finally I have to say that the glorious Andes-mountains of Ecuador – like Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, but also the Pichincha, Ilinizas, el Corazón – are the most important monuments to their endeavours. They had to climb them one by one to fulfil their duty, and to “Measure the Earth” .

My book about the French mission, only available so far in Dutch: De Aarde is niet rond.



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