San Francisco is the Jake La Motta of Ecuadorian churches – you just can’t knock it down. It has survived the eruption of Pichincha Volcano in 1582, an earthquake in 1868 that toppled its towers, and a further eruption – this time of the volcano Gua-Gua Pichincha – in 1999, to win the title of longest-standing church on the continent. Currently, and unsurprisingly, undergoing restoration, San Francisco is considered the indigenous church – a champion of the people if you like. Dark and gloomy within, most of the light comes reflected from the huge gold-leaf nave. Built on the site of an Inca temple, San Francisco is as tough and stoic as its worshippers.
Hours: Mon-Sat 7-11:30 am and 3-5:30 pm; Sun 7am – noon.
Location: Plaza San Francisco, Old Town.
If you only visit one church in Ecuador – and that in itself would be something of a miracle – this should be it. Unprepossessing from the outside, the interior is capable of inspiring awe in the most jaded, seen-it-all travellers. Described by some (mainly Ecuadorians, one suspects) as South America’s Sistine Chapel, and covered aisle-to-spire in gold leaf, it’s an incredible display of baroque workmanship. Or maybe an obscene display of wealth, built by the Jesuits with the blood and sweat of indigenous labourers. Whatever your opinion, it’s a thought-provoking must-see.
Hours: Mon – Fri 10 am – 1 pm and 2-5 pm; Sat 10 am – 1 pm
Location: Calle Garcia Moreno and Sucre
Perched high on a hill overlooking the Old Town, Quito’s Basilica is well worth the climb. In the grand Ecuadorian tradition of church-building, it is still unfinished after over 100 years of construction, but reopened fairly recently for services in its cavernous interior. The view from high atop one of the Gothic structure’s main towers is the real attraction of the Basilica, though. Accessible via an unlikely elevator and a series of steep ladders, you pass behind the great clock face to find the city and surrounding mountains spread out below you. Looking down across the tiled roofs and spires of the colonial quarter to the mound of the Winged Virgin “Panecillo,” you feel like you too could take flight.
At the corner of Calle Venezuela and Carchí
It’s easy to reach Church Saturation Point in Quito’s Old Town. Such was the plethora of religious buildings erected by the conquering Spaniards, the Cathedral is not even the grandest church on the block, never mind the entire barrio. But if you look at it more in terms of history than religion, it gets more interesting. There are paintings from the Quito School of Art containing indigenous images in a small act of rebellion by co-opted native artists; the Moorish influences in the architecture, relics of another war fought by the Spaniards; and the bones of Marshall Sucre, hero of Ecuador’s successful fight for independence. There’s more to the Street of Seven Crosses than crosses.
Plaza de Independencia.
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