Iglesia de Balbanera – Colta, Ecuador - Atlas Obscura

Colta, Ecuador

Iglesia de Balbanera

Ecuador's first Catholic church was built by Spanish conquistadors in 1534. 

When traveling south along the Pan-American highway from Riobamba, you may notice a church at the side of the road that doesn’t really look like anything special. However, you’d be mistaken!

Constructed in 1534, La Iglesia de Balbanera is one of the earliest examples of colonial architecture in South America and the first Catholic church in Ecuador. Though it has survived centuries of earthquakes, the church still stands and is still in use today.

The building is a beautiful blend of European and indigenous techniques. It’s built in the Baroque style and was cobbled together with local rocks, volcanic rubble, and adobe. Although it appears to have a traditional colonial design from the outside, you can see some traditional Inca-style carvings in the stone of the main façade.

Unlike European Catholic churches, the interior is plain and the only adornment is an altar to the Virgin of Balbanera, from the La Rioja region of Spain. Every October and November, hundreds of locals turn out to see the Virgin paraded around the town of Colta. At the back of the church, there’s a tiny room which is billed as a museum where you can see some dolls and children’s costumes. 

Know Before You Go

The church is open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday Mass is at 9:30 a.m., 12 p.m., and 4 p.m. Please be respectful of the fact this is a place of active worship.


Afterward, check out the cool and traditional Ecuadorian market outside, where you’ll find vegetable ivory statues, hand painted gifts, and alpaca wool goods. If you’re feeling really brave, head to one of the several roadside restaurants over by the church to try the national delicacy cuy (yes, that’s guinea pig), before walking it off around the Laguna de Colta, a huge lake.

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