QUITO, ECUADOR — Pope Francis began a three-country, weeklong tour through South America on Sunday afternoon, landing first in the Ecuadorian capital for a two-day visit to a country that has nearly come to a stop to welcome the pontiff.
In a return to the home continent for the first pope from the Americas, Francis told crowds at Quito's airport that he wanted to reach out to all in the country during his brief visit and was "filled with excitement and hope" for the trip.
Outlining the geography of the country -- mentioning the dormant Chimborazo volcano, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazon rainforest -- the pope encouraged Ecuadorians from all places to "never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple."
Francis also called on them "to care for your children and your elderly, to have confidence in the young, and to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people and the singular beauty of your country."
The pontiff will be visiting Ecuador through Wednesday morning before continuing on to Bolivia and Paraguay, and then flying back to Rome on Sunday.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa welcomed Francis to his country with lengthy remarks Sunday that quoted extensively from the pope's own writings, especially his recent ecological encyclical Laudato Si'.
Correa praised the pope's focus on family issues, his calls against continuing global inequality, and even cited his remarks in the environmental encyclical that the right to private property is not absolute.
The pontiff and president will meet again Monday afternoon, in Francis' official visit to the presidential palace.
Earlier Monday, Francis will visit the Ecuadorian Pacific Ocean port city of Guayaquil where he will celebrate an outdoor Mass to an expected crowd in the hundreds of thousands.
The pope will meet Tuesday with the country's bishops and with members of civil society, and will also celebrate an outdoor Mass expected to attract crowds in the millions. On Wednesday morning he will meet with clergy and religious before heading on to Bolivia.
Some Ecuadorians said in days leading up to Francis' visit that they hoped the pontiff would use the separate meetings with clergy and bishops to encourage the country's Catholic church to adopt a more circular model of governance.
"My strong hope ... is that the pope's visit will bring Ecuador's church a shake-up that we need," said Maribel León, an Ecuadorian who is the coordinator for missionary formation for the Quito archdiocese's Pontifical Mission Societies.
Preparations for the pope's visit to Ecuador have been intense, with nearly every major newspaper covering the trip on their front pages for days leading up to his landing. Many buildings around the downtown area have several story banners welcoming the pope, with quotations from his writings and speeches.
Traffic came to a halt throughout the capital Sunday in anticipation of the pope's arrival, and bus services were being offered for free in an attempt to limit congestion.
Crowds lined the some 30-minute drive for the papal convoy from Quito's airport to the downtown area, at one point forcing the convoy to speed off to avoid a mass of people.
Francis took the last few miles of the drive in an open-air pope-mobile, slowly winding toward the city while greeting people.
Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said at a press conference later Sunday that he estimated some 500,000 people had come to greet the pope at his arrival.