Rising up impressively from the quaint streets of old Quito is the comparatively modern basilica. Lonely Planet claimed it was built in 1926, but wikipedia turns up a bit more detail and a construction start date of 1887 with a budget of 12,000 pesos. Lonely Planet did get something right, though, that it seems unfinished, and they cheekily said "the tradition of taking decades to build churches (such as in colonial times) is still alive."
Officially known as the Basilica del Voto Nacional, there are several things about this church that distinguish it from others that you may visit, aside from the fact that it is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas and that it has superb views of the city. This is not a Spanish colonial construction: this is pure Latin America, right down to the unfinished bits, and the quirks that make it unique.
1. The history
- The idea to build it came from a father (Julio Matovelle), it was sanctioned by a president (Luis Cordero) to be built by another (José María Plácido Caamaño), with approval of a pope (Leo XIII), but it took an archbishop (Pedro Rafael González Calisto) to push for its completion, while another pope (John Paul II) blessed it.
- Construction was only supposed to take a year and it ended up taking more than a century! (Supposed to begin 1884, actually beginning in 1887, but the first stone wasn't placed until 1892, but it was finally inaugurated in 1988! Technically it can never be 'finished' because when it is the world will end.)
- A salt tax was instituted to help pay for it once the government-allocated budget ran out.
- It was inspired by Bourges Cathedral.
2. The gargoyles
When I looked up at the outside of the cathedral at first there was just a "typical" mythical dragon with wings and I barely gave it a glance until my friend exclaimed about how they were all animals from the Galapagos. Known as "grotesques", Ecuador's nationalism extends to decorating its churches in the shape of traditional animals like armadillos, iguanas, and tortises! I suppose the real-life animals are as close to mythical creatures as you can probably get. The turtles and lizards and genetic uniqueness is celebrated here - how cool and also ironic: church and science are as close as can be by putting Darwin's creatures on a main religious building of the city!
3. Going inside the ceiling
How many European churches can you actually go inside the (unfinished) ceiling? Certainly not one of this size. It was cool to see how the arches and roof of the church are constructed and then you can even walk across a rickety drawbridge to the other side of the roof. It is so rustic that it almost feels as if you could fall through, which adds to the excitement, but the number of unregulated teenagers making the climb (and graffitiing the tower) makes you realise that it has to be pretty safe. This walkway is, of course, after normal stairs leading to a balcony looking down on the nave (with great stained-glass windows).
4. Towers to climb
I love heights and this place allowed me to really satisfy my cravings. Two front towers and one back one, all climbable with something unique. The rickety staircases leading up the single north-east tower (or should I more accurately call them a rickety exposed iron ladder) have spectacular views through the twin south-western towers to the virgin on the Panecillo hill behind. The other towers have lifts leading up to alternative views across the new and old city. There's also a wedding cafe for those who'd love to celebrate above the city!
Source: Lonely Planet South America on a Shoestring, 9th Edition