Right off the highway (and the railroad tracks), within the quilted fields that overlook the solemn Laguna de Colta, stands what popular belief has come to call Ecuador’s oldest church. Although there are no documented records of its foundation, the temple was allegedly erected by the bare hands of crazed Conquistadors only months before the Spanish founding of the city of Quito, (way back when, in 1534, in the very same year that the Jesuit Order came into existence).
This small yet legendary construction clearly plays the part (with its weathered stonework, modest dimensions and rough architecture) of a heritage gem nestled deep in the loins of the Ecuadorian Andes. Although some of the church has been refitted over the years, it conserves a spectacular colonial façade with curious hieroglyphic-like angel carvings and simple gargoyles, as well as a charming bell tower that on clear days – or your everyday heavenly Andean sunset – can be pitted against colossal Chimborazo for a stunning photogenic effect. Its venerated Virgen de la Balbanera rests sleepily inside the dark gray-tinged vault (as well as a curious painting depicting the tragic tale of burning wagons and the Virgin’s miraculous apparition to save them back in 1909), that combine with ancient-looking windowsills, walls and baptismal font.
The spot certainly offers its share of inspiration to revel at the grandeur of the Spanish conquest and the creation of its new colonial realms. Ancestors of the talented Puruhá culture still populate the area, herd their sheep and graze their cattle over Colta’s surrounding marshlands, which also offer totora reeds from which the local artisans create their handicrafts: baskets and estera mats (find them at Cajabamba’s Sunday Market, the next station south). Conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar plunged through here, over these very communities (minus the sheep and the cattle) almost 500 years ago, and is said to have set the foundation of this very church as a victory flag; others believe it marks the beginning of Benalcázar’s advance to found the city of San Francisco de Quito.