QUITO, Ecuador — Latin America's first pope returned to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time as pontiff Sunday, beginning a nine-day tour.
Pope Francis received a raucous welcome in Ecuador on the first leg of his pilgrimage, in which he is expected to highlight the plight of the poor, denounce inequality and reinforce his call to safeguard the environment.
Children in traditional dress greeted Francis at Quito's Mariscal Sucre airport, the wind blowing off his skullcap and whipping his white cassock as he descended from the plane following a 13-hour flight from Rome. He personally greeted and kissed several indigenous youths waiting for him on the side of the red carpet.
He will not stop by his native Argentina, although up to a million of his countrymen are expected to cross into neighboring Paraguay to attend his open-air masses there.
And yet for Francis, this will be a homecoming in its own right. The pope, who has long claimed to want a "Poor Church for the Poor," will travel to some of the continent's most downtrodden areas, facing not only political but also physical challenges.
In Ecuador, the pope's call for more responsible economic growth and environmental protection will be put to the test. It is one of the most biodiverse nations on earth, and at the same time it relies heavily on mining and oil, which account for 96 percent of its exports.
But his priority will be the disadvantaged and marginalized.
During his nine-day trip, he will reach out to indigenous communities — many of which still associate Catholicism with colonialism — visit inmates in Bolivia's infamous Palmasola prison and tour Paraguay's Banado Norte shantytown.
And yet, the biggest challenge the 78-year-old pope may face is neither religious nor political. During the pilgrimage, he will fly to five cities in eight days, from sea level to 13,000 feet, with drastic changes in climate and temperature.