Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa welcomed the Argentinian-born pontiff at Quito airport on Sunday, embracing him as the pope left his Alitalia passenger plane. It was so windy at the airport that his skullcap was blown off seconds after he emerged from the jet.
In his first speech of the nine-day visit, Pope Francis thanked God for allowing him to return to Latin America.
"May you never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple, 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," Francis said at the airport.
After his speech, the pope and his motorcade headed to Quito, with thousands of people cheering him along the highway. The pope is set to stay in the residency of the Vatican's ambassador, before leaving Ecuador on Wednesday.
After Ecuador, the pope is scheduled to visit Bolivia and Paraguay. The three nations are among the poorest countries in South America and were specifically chosen for Francis to deliver his message on helping the needy.
"I want to bear witness to the joy of the Gospel and bring God's tenderness and care," the pope said before leaving Vatican.
"Especially children in need, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, those who are victims of this throwaway culture."
The pontiff is expected to raise environmental issues when meeting the Bolivian and Ecuadorian presidents, who have promoted oil drilling and mining in wilderness regions. Last month, Francis urged the world to act quickly to prevent "extraordinary" climate change from destroying the planet.
However, Francis will skip his homeland of Argentina, which some attribute to his intention to stay out of the upcoming presidential elections.
The pope is set to deliver a total of 22 speeches before returning to Rome on July 13. He will also hold public masses in all three countries, with the Vatican expecting more than one million people to turn up at each occasion. Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay are all overwhelmingly Catholic. About 40 percent of the world's Roman Catholics live in Latin America.
Pope Francis is also scheduled to visit the United States and Cuba on a separate trip in September.
dj/jr (Reuters, AP, AFP)