Despite approval to begin construction of the Quito Basilica in 1884, it took over 100 years for the building to be finished enough for a blessing by Pope John Paul II in 1985. Today, the Basilica del Voto Nacional is still considered unfinished although a casual onlooker would be forgiven for thinking that it has stood in the historic center for centuries.
The Unfinished Quito Basilica
Shockingly, the building is still officially unfinished. Rumor has it that when the building is completed, the end of the world is nigh. Perhaps that is why several empty niches wait for carved statues and many of the apse chapels feel very empty.
Like most Gothic cathedrals, the work is probably never really finished. By the time the work is supposedly complete, something needs repair. For example, several figures on the outside of the Quito Basilica are crumbling away, leaving metal innards for all to see.
Visiting the Quito Basilica
When you arrive at the Quito Basilica, there are actually two desks that welcome tourists. The first is found at the side entrance that faces the park and takes you to the interior parts on the main floor of the Basilica. It is beautiful inside, full of stained glass windows that shine in the mountain sunlight and provide a stark contrast to the dark grey stone quarried from the Pichincha Volcano.
The second entrance is found at the front of the church. The ticket vendors quietly sit at a desk and if you don’t approach them, you may never learn that they guard the passageway to the two towers and the steeple with the infamous climb up an exterior ladder. The entrance fee is inexpensive. It is also different from the fee you pay at the other side of the church. The two have no connecting doorways and must be visited independent of one another.
Visiting the Basilica Grounds
Before you go inside the Basilica to find those two desks, you may want to take a moment to walk around the outside. You can wander inside the gated area for free. My guess is you will spend a lot of time looking up!
In fact, I recommend you bring a pair of binoculars or a long lens for your camera. Use them to look for the turtles, the llamas, the iguanas and other grotesques on the outside of the building. What’s a grotesque, you ask? It’s similar to a gargoyle except that it isn’t doesn’t channel water.
Inside the gates, a small cafe waits for tired visitors. It’s a popular place to buy a coffee or an ice cream bar. Snacks are always available and sometimes you might even find a light meal. Tour groups can arrange for a lunch in advance… but if you do, consider eating at the second restaurant found high up in one of the two towers!
Visiting the Ground Floor of the Basilica
If you like churches, you will appreciate a tour inside the main Basilica. Sometimes you can hire a guide at the entrance. However, unless you want an in depth history of the place, I recommend walking around on your own.
There are 24 small chapels, many of which remain fairly empty. The highlight of this Basilica is found elsewhere, in its architecture. Look for the stairways that lead to two different choir stalls immediately under the two rose windows that face one another. They sit on either side of the main altar. It is permissible to climb those stairs and enjoy the views from up high.
Rumor has it that priests can see the Virgin of the Panecillo from high upon the altar. They merely need to look out above the main doors. The heart-shaped window frames her winged figure perfectly! Of course, everyday tourists are not allowed to climb the altar to see this vision. I should know as I was reprimanded for trying!
Visiting the Towers and Steeple
By far, visiting the steeple is the most popular attraction of the Quito Basilica.
The day we went, the elevator was not working. In fact, it hasn’t worked on repeat visits either! For this reason, you should plan on walking up a few flights of stairs. Furthermore, plan on sharing narrow spaces on winding stairways with people going in the opposite direction. This is not a tour for the claustrophobic.
On the first level, you will walk across the back choir stall overlooking the ground floor of the Basilica. If you decide to skip the tour of the ground floor, this glimpse may be enough to satisfy your curiosity.
This is also the best place to enjoy the largest of the Rose Windows. You will be close enough to observe the details in this beautiful structure. In particular, note the native orchids in the colorful glass!
From here, you can climb another set of stairs that lead higher up one of the towers. While it is possible to explore either of the two towers, one allows higher access than the other. Either way, you will find a floor above that straddles the two. At this point, you are also able to walk outside onto a balcony and see Quito spread out before you.
Better yet, turn and look up at the marvelous blue sky and the two towers hovering directly above you with clouds mirrored in the window directly above!
Visiting The Steeple
All this and you still haven’t reached the steeple! Get ready for one of the more interesting walks of your life. A narrow sidewalk runs along the inside of the Basilica roof, just above the domes that form the chapels below. It is a bizarre space that was never intended to allow visitors but today offers passage to the most popular activity at the Basilica. It feels a little like walking into an episode of Dr. Who.
At the end of this walkway, you’ll climb once again. This time it will be a short but steep ladder. Then, once outside with the grotesques and the diamond shaped tiles and decorative metalwork on the roof, you can take a chance to catch your breathe before climbing even more.
Now comes the part that some people just can’t handle. To enter the steeple, you must climb a very steep ladder. To make it worse, it is possible to see past each of the rungs to the ground below! If you are afraid of heights, this can be a challenge.
But the views are worth it! From here, you can see the Virgin of the Panecillo standing proudly on her hill, framed by the two towers. It’s a picture just begging to be taken.
Time Management At The Basilica
Plan on spending at least an hour up top. Or more if you decide to have a drink at the cafe or wander through the gift shop. If you’ve chosen a sunny day with clear views, take your best camera and have a wonderful time capturing the city of Quito in all its glory. If you are a lover of architecture, this is a must-do visit as you will see parts of this church in ways that can’t be repeated in other locations.
How To Get To The Basilica
Because parking can be tight, we recommend arriving by taxi or using public transportation (take care to hide your camera and protect your personal belongings). If you must arrive by car, there is a parking garage on Calle Venezuela immediately past the Basilica on the left-hand side of the street. It is a tight squeeze and only those drivers with skills at maneuvering in tight spaces should dare to enter!