Construction on the Basilica started in 1883 to mark the country’s renewed devotion to Jesus Christ, as decreed 10 years earlier by president Gabriel Garcia Morena. Despite over 120 years of history, the church is new compared with others in Quito’s colonial district. In fact, it remains technically unfinished, which is hardly surprising, considering almost penniless local church-goers provided the funding.
Nonetheless, this neo-Gothic structure is magnificent, rising 112 metres from the ground to its spire top. Posed on a partly eroded hill and edged on one side with barbed wire — the Basilica emits the romantic eeriness of late 16th-century novels, emphasised by a series of bird-like gargoyles, perched and watchful, on its parapets.
Like all churches in Latin America, the Basilica is operational. Entry into its nave and chancel — the main body where services are held — is free. However, a small charge applies to climbing its skeleton of knotted stairs, gang-planks and ladders, a feat that requires considerable fitness, especially for those unaccustomed to Quito’s 3,000 metre altitude.
The journey starts with a wheel-shaped window of radiant stained-glass roses in the clerestory, the mezzanine that over-looks the church’s main body. Corkscrew stairs lead to views of the Basilica’s gargoyles, which on close inspection are ominous models of Ecuador’s fauna, including condors, monkeys and jaguars. In defiance of all notions of occupational health and safety, a trembling gang-plank and iron ladder deliver hot and dirty climbers to their final destination — the rose-bud encrusted bell tower.
Most clang the Basilica’s four bells before enjoying their reward — ninety metre high views that soar from the statuesque Virgin of Quito south of the city’s colonial Old Town over faded terraces and modern skyscrapers to the far northern suburbs, a 360-degree spectacle offered by no other location.
An edited version of this story appears in V!VA List, Latin America, a compilation of 333 Latin experiences put together by Viva Travel Guides and released this month. See www.vivatravelguides.com/viva-list/ for more information.