The Virgin of the Panecillo in Quito is hard to miss. Located on a hill near the city center, she is more than just a statue.
“But the woman was given two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the dessert, where, far from the serpent, she was taken care of for a year, two years, and a half-year.” Book of Revelation 12:14
She is visible from almost every angle of the city, the mother, the guardian, the observer of Quito. The Virgen of the Panecillo stands on top of the hill (named after its resemblance to a bread roll): a crown of 12 stars on her head, her palm raised in inviting reassurance. Her hands are the size of woman, her great wings as long as a giraffe.
The winged Maria, the largest of her kind, has a great depth of legends and meanings to the city, especially considering her comparatively young age – she was officially opened in 1976. She has sparked creativity, inspiring songs like ‘El Chulla Quiteño’ and the movie ‘A tus espaldas’ (‘Behind your back’) using the statue’s pointing towards the wealthy north to discuss the social inequality between sectors of the city.
Gazing at her from the streets is one thing, but to visit the statue – to climb inside the tower, to stand on the lookout point by her feet – is something completely different.
Here you will see the view that our Maria enjoys each day, the straight white lines of the Historic Centre melting into the chaos of the modern north, fading into mountains and clouds behind.
For $1 you can enter the museum, whose first floor is an homage to the city’s female Catholic saints, like the Señora of Guadalupe, a vivid stained-glass window dedicated to each one. There are also models of each of the city’s religious buildings: a miniature Santo Domingo or San Agustin.
You can learn about the incredible construction: how a statue of the Virgin was first commissioned in 1892 by a senator but the building did not begin until 1955. The replica of an 18th century sculpture by Bernardo de Lagarda, a key figure in the Quito Art School, was created with 7,000 pieces of aluminium – squares welded together giving the Maria a patchwork appearance from close up.
Climbing up from there, you can emerge at her feet and view the 360° vista from one of the highest points in the city.
For a city enthralled by Catholicism, the Virgen of the Panecillo is the perfect symbol of protection, prestige, and earnest piety.
Eat: Just below the statue is Pim’s, one of an upscale restaurant chain. With a view every bit as fabulous as the Virgen’s, you can stop for a coffee, a cocktail, or a long and lazy lunch.
Buy: Opposite the exhibit is a market of local arts and crafts, in German-style wooden stalls. You’ll find classic souvenirs here, from Andean-style backpacks and woollen hoodies to carved wooden ornaments and woven jewellery.
Do: If you visit the statue at the weekend, be sure to wander a few hundred metres to the south to the park at the top of the hill. This is a kite-flyer’s paradise, with the wind sweeping crafts high up among the clouds, the backdrop of the Pichincha volcano or sprawling city only adding to the thrill. You can even buy your own kite on the hill (but don’t expect it to last more than one flight).
Remember: The walk down the hill back towards the Old Town may look attractive but can be very quiet along the way, leaving visitors vulnerable. If you do decide to take the path, make sure to leave valuables with the hotel or group leader.