A Southern-Highlands Hidden Gem: Balbanera Church, Ecuador’s First Catholic Building

The Ecuadorian highlands are home to many natural and cultural beauties. Travelling down the “Avenue of the Volcanoes” amazes visitors with its grand variety of amazing landscapes, snow-caped mountains, active volcanoes, and towns and cities full of charm and history. Start your journey in Quito by staying at its conviniently-located hotel in the colonial downtown area, Casa Gangotena (from which all of the old town’s treasures are but a few steps away), and organize your explorations of the highlands. Driving south, you will have the opportunity to visit some of its most iconic cities. Make a couple of pit stops along the way to take some wonderful photos, or stay a night if you wish to get a more in-depth exploration the Ecuadorian Andean culture. While travelling south you will come upon one of the highlands’ hidden gems: Balbanera Church, Ecuador’s first catholic building. This beautiful stone and adobe building will capture your attention and is a site no to be missed!

Balbanera Church, Ecuador’s First Catholic Building

Built beside Colta Lake with the magnificent Chimborazo in the background, in a valley just 2-hours away from Riobamba (the capital city of the Tungurahua province), Balbanera Church couldn’t have been more appropriately located. As can be seen on one of the engravings on its walls, the colonial-style church was built on August 15th, 1534. After the battle of Tiocajas, conquistadors Sebastian de Benalcazar and Diego de Almagro discovered the valley and lake and decided it was the perfect place to found a city, which they eventually named Santiago de Quito. In order to protect its inhabitants and aid the Spanish in their evangelization efforts of the local people, the newly-founded city built a Catholic place of worship – the first one in the country. The name later changed to Santiago de Guayaquil, which then became Guayaquil’s official name, and Quito was later used in renaming the former-Quitu-Cara capital up north to San Francisco de Quito.

Colta Lake and Chimborazo in the distance. Photo By Dr. Carlos Costales Terán [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Colta Lake and Chimborazo in the distance. Photo By Dr. Carlos Costales Terán [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A New Style is Born

The Church is believed to have been built by both Spanish and Indigenous hands, as both influences can be seen in its construction techniques and decoration. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary Nativity of Balbanera, the church was built using calcareous stone that was pasted together with clay and then covered with adobe and then, later, cement (after some modern renovation). The mixture of the baroque-style (brought in by the Europeans) is seen in the high-relief and low-relief engravings, while motifs and embedding show a clear Incan-style. Its lateral walls are almost a metre thick and only the inside of the ceiling has been restored. The original altar, atrium and baptismal font still decorate the interior. Even though the inside has undergone some level of restoration, it still keeps the simplicity of the religious temples from those earlier times. You might also find it interesting to know that this building still stands strong and tall after having survived several earthquakes. Its simple beauty invites locals and visitors to go in for a moment of prayer or meditation.

Balbanera Church, Ecuador’s First Catholic Building. Photo By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Balbanera Church, Ecuador’s First Catholic Building. Photo By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Make sure you stop at this magical place that’s located right beside the Panamericana highway. You will not only be transformed by the power of its surrounding landscape, but by the mysticism of the building itself.

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Nathalie Moeller is of Ecuadorian and German descent. As a child she spent her summers in the Galapagos Islands, where her mother grew up, and from a very young age learned to love the beauty and uniqueness of the archipelago. She studied Journalism and Humanities in Barcelona, after living in Madrid and Germany for a couple of years. This gave her a culturally broader view of the world, which is reflected in everything she does. Blogging gives her the opportunity to combine her passion for travelling and writing.

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