VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis leaves Rome on Sunday for his first trip to Spanish-speaking Latin America, a "homecoming" to a continent where he will champion the rights of the poor and of the planet.
His trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay three of South America's poorest and smallest countries, is Francis' first abroad since his landmark encyclical "Laudato Si" issued an urgent call for defense of the environment.
Francis arrived in the Ecuadorian capital Quito after a 13-hour flight from Rome, where on Saturday night he went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray for the success of trip.
He left a bouquet of flowers in the colours of the flags of the three countries.
Francis visited Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 but that was to substitute for his predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation.
Because he chose the three countries himself, Vatican aides say this is the real "homecoming" to his native continent. He will not visit his native Argentina until next year.