Dan and I have yet to get bored with our travels. When we get tired of the coast, we head inland, when we’re sick of the metropolis we head to little pueblitos that barely show on Google maps. After a string of beach towns, we decided to change things up by heading up, up to 2,850 meters above sea level to Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

We could feel the change in altitude immediately. The air felt much colder and thinner than on the coast and, much like in Cusco and La Paz, we were huffing and puffing to get up the smallest of hills. Somehow, this didn’t stop my sight-seeing drive and we packed four sites into one day. We usually keep to the art gallery/museum circuit but, in Quito, the churches and religious monuments are impossible to bypass. From anywhere in the city you can see La Virgen de Quito, looking down at you from her perch on El Panecillo hill (little bread roll). We took a taxi to see her and I found myself comparing this statue to Christ the Redeemer in Rio. Whereas Christ the Redeemer looks strong and powerful with his rod straight posture and outstretched arms, La Virgen seems weak and vulnerable, as if she is holding her side in pain. Despite her apparent torment, she enjoys a spectacular birds-eye view of Quito.

From there, we ventured into la Iglesia San Francisco. Mass was being held but we still got to look around. The church is the oldest in Quito dating back to 1535. It is slightly sloped and higher than surrounding buildings because it was built on top of an Incan temple. (This reminded me of the churches in Rome, like the Pantheon, that were built on top of old Roman temples which were themselves probably built over Greek temples). In the entranceway of San Francisco, we noticed a lot of sun symbology which was used to attract sun-worshipping indigenous people to Christianity.

Next we visited La Compañía de Jesús, a Jesuit church, gilded from floor-to-ceiling in 23 carat gold leaf. Natural light bounces off the ornate surfaces making the place shine like fancy jewellery. Pretty impressive.

In an alcove off the main knave, we came across a particularly macabre Christ sculpture. I wasn’t expecting it and when I entered the dark alcove, I couldn’t help but let out a shocked yelp. We snuck some photos despite the no-photo policy.

The real jewel of the day was our last stop. Our friend Nicki in Cusco had recommended the Basilica del Voto Nacional, where she said you could climb right up into the bell towers.

I had my doubts; churches always seem to be so strict – no photos, no uncovered shoulders, no food, etc… Somehow, the Basilica has slipped beneath the regulatory radar and, for a small fee, we were given free reign to climb to sickening heights inside the gothic spires.

I felt like Quasimodo, taking creaky ladders and windy staircases to the top with nothing but the city to break our fall. At one point, we walked across a narrow gangplank, cautiously stepping just above the vaulted ceilings of the church’s main nave. The views from behind the ornate stone latticework were even more spectacular than on El Panecillo. I felt like we were doing something restricted or illegal, it was really hard to believe that the church was cool with us touching the bells and the giant clock.

This was one of our favourite South American churches; it was infinitely more hands-on than any other we had visited. The architecture of churches is wonderful to appreciate when you can interact with it.