Rooftop tour beyond belief

Kapka Kassabova scales the sacred domes and spires of colonial Quito.

'You don't believe in God?" Senor Rivas asks. "Doesn't matter. But make a wish because the astral quality of Quito is exceptional."

Rivas is a guide who specialises in walking tours of historic Quito. A Quiteno from a distinguished family of considerable heritage, he has permission to climb inside and outside the dozens of church domes that make Quito South America's most exquisite colonial city. He looks the part with his silk cravat and panama hat.

He takes me to where no tourist or local goes - up in the domes of the San Francisco church. There's a legend that the church was built in one night after a local named Cantuna made a pact with the Devil; the Devil built it down to the last stone in exchange for Cantuna's soul. In the morning, the Devil came for Cantuna's soul but the wily fox had removed a stone from the dome.

The cherub-festooned interior is vertiginous but when we go through a tiny door and clamber outside, I am too stunned to suffer from vertigo. Sunset washes Quito in gold.

True, colonial Quito was built by the conquistadors but quitu means "sun worshippers" in Quichua. From the top of one of seven hills once sacred to the Incas, even the city's largest Virgin seems to be catching the setting sun's fire. She is 45 metres tall, winged, made of aluminium and if you see her face close up - impossible unless you climb inside her, which I've done - she looks as if the Latin word misericordia (compassion) was invented for her.

We are now inside La Compania de Jesus, the psychedelically ornate Jesuit church whose dome displays a gigantic sun. "Christianity and the Incas were wedded here," Rivas says.

Soon, we're on the roof and Rivas explains how the spine of Quito is the Pichincha volcano, which erupted spectacularly in 1999 and covered the city in ash, and how the churches of Quito are aligned. We survey the skyline of domes, spires and hills.

Next, we pop into San Agustin, where two monks live in silence. I'll never forget San Agustin because here I see the embodiment of agony and ecstasy. It's the shockingly human sculpture of a post-crucifixion Jesus, by Quito's mystic artist, Miguel de Santiago. He was a perfectionist: to sculpt this, the story goes, he killed one of his students.

All the church bells toll in brassy harmony now. Inside the Dominican monastery Santo Domingo, we slip backstage into the chapel of the rosary. It's all gold, red - like Christ's blood - and mirrors. The indigenous people believed the mirrors contained their souls and gave the Spaniards gold for them. The gold built these extravagant temples. A life-sized Virgin in purple holds a string of huge pearls. "Nobody goes behind the Virgin, except us," Rivas says and pushes a dwarf's door that weighs a tonne.

We slip behind the Virgin and, for a moment, I swear her hair is stirred by an invisible breath. In the vast church hall, two young men with ponytails and tatty clothes begin to strum old guitars: it's time for vespers.

We are now on the roof but I can hear the guitars and the Andean folk downstairs singing a melancholic refrain: "You will be our light/You will save us/You will give us life."

A lump the size of Pichincha volcano melts in my throat. I feel immense sadness and joy to be here, at the Andean heart of the human experience.

"Did you make a wish?" Rivas says gently, taking off his panama hat.

"Yes." I swallow the lump.

"I thought so," he nods. "I will always remember you as the atheist girl from Britain who cried on top of Santo Domingo at sunset." He winks at me and all the wrinkles in his face smile.

Book a tour by emailing Julio Rivas Garcia on julio@quitocitytour.com. Tours can be tailor-made; a standard tour takes four hours.

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