A short drive across the border between Ecuador and Colombia lies the town of Ipiales. The town itself is no different from a hundred other little towns, except for the nearby church that was built across a river valley. El Santuario de las Lajas is one of the world’s most beautiful churches, and definitely worth visiting if you are crossing the Ecuador – Colombia border by land, like I did.
The Miracle at Las Lajas
El Santuario de las Lajas was built on this site to celebrate a miracle that took place in 1754 when Maria Mueces de Quiñonez and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a storm. While seeking refuge among the huge lajas (stone boulders), Rosa suddenly cried out “the Mestiza is calling me” and pointed to a lightning-illuminated silhouette of the Virgin Mary over the rock. This was obviously a huge surprise to Maria, and she recounted the story to the priest in her village when she returned. On the 15th of September of that year, the priest organized the first pilgrimage from Ipiales to the cave of ‘Las Lajas’. A chapel was built on the site to commemorate the miracle, which was the beginning of the now magnificent basilica.
Today, the church rises 100 metres above the bottom of the canyon and is connected to the other side by an arched bridge, making for dramatic photographs. occasional reports of cases of miraculous healing. The image on the stone is still visible today, apparently located inside the back of the church, unfortunately I didn’t realise it was there so didn’t get to witness the miraculous image myself. Built between 1916 and 1949 purely from donations by local churchgoers, the church is built in Gothic Revival style – and up close appears a little garish, and is best appreciated from afar.
Inside the church is also quite beautiful, without being in your face. The stained glass windows include images of the church’s spires and carved fishes adorn the doors, a nod to its riverside location. On the outside, statues of white angels playing an orchestra of instruments adorn the bridge and columns of the church.
On completing their pilgrimage to the church, many people leave plaques to commemorate their journey or to ask for blessing from the virgin for themselves and their families. These plaques line the steps down to the church, and flowering plants frame them, making them just a part of the church as the bricks used to build it.
How to get to Santuario de las Lajas
Ipiales is just across the border from Ecuador, and if you are travelling by land you will pass through the town as it is currently the only recommended land crossing between Ecuador and Colombia. You can take a taxi from the immigration office to the bus terminal in Ipiales for around 8,000 pesos – the price is regulated, and displayed above the taxi rank at the bottom of the steps from the immigration desk. In the terminal you can store your baggage until you return – there is no official storage office but most of the little internet cafes will gladly keep your bag for a couple of thousand pesos, less than a dollar. From the terminal, catch a colectivo shared taxi – back up the stairs and to the right there are signs for colectivos where they gather. Check the price and catch a ride – less than 15 minutes – to the top of the path that leads down to the church.
Along the path there are tons of bathrooms available for 1000 pesos – apparently, plenty of elderly and incontinent visitors come here! It was pretty quiet when I was there, but I imagine in high season, and on public or religious holidays it is a popular place to visit – some 750,000 pilgrims a year!
Named by The Telegraph as the most beautiful church in the World in 2015, El Santuario de las Lajas is certainly impressive, but I admit it was smaller than I expected. You can take the cable car across the valley for more spectacular views of the church and the valley below, but be aware this isn’t the most direct route to return to Ipiales town! The cable car drops you off in the middle of nowhere, where you can either get a taxi, or jump on a bus – which will take you into town and about 10 minutes walk away from the bus terminal. Ask the driver to let you know when to get off. The church itself is free to visit, so if you are passing through it seems silly not to stop! There is no need to spend the night here, just a couple of hours before you hop on your next bus.
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