Colombia is a country that surprised me at every turn in the three weeks that I was there, and as I headed to the southern land border into Ecuador, I was hoping to squeeze in one more amazing sight – the legendary Santuario de Las Lajas or Las Lajas Sanctuary, a majestic Gothic church built in a remote valley near the border town Ipiales.
My visit to what has been proclaimed the most beautiful church in the world started off with an unexpected 16-hour bus ride, a 2am arrival at subzero temperatures and no hotel booked. Here’s a little bit about my experience and what you need to know to visit Santuario de Las Lajas in Colombia for yourself.
An unexpectedly long journey to Ipiales
The bus ride that I took from Cali was supposed to take 10 hours; you’ll hear me bitch about taking an hour to get anywhere in Singapore, but in South America, I just shrug and buy some snacks for the long ride. Traffic was extremely slow that day as I alternately dozed, read or spaced out on the bus, and what was meant to be an 8-9pm arrival in Ipiales was delayed to 2am instead.
I hate not knowing where I’m going to sleep at night when I travel – I usually do my bookings a day in advance so I don’t get the jitters, and as the hours ticked by in the bus, it looked like my worst fears about having to sleep on the street might just be coming true, especially when it looked like everything was closed and shut down in this little remote mountain town.
But it turns out Ipiales is used to people coming in at odd hours – I had done a little bit of research and knew that a hotel that I wanted to check out was the Hotel Metropol right around the corner from the bus station, so I headed over as quickly as I could the moment I got off the bus. I stood outside with my bags, shivering in the cold night air, and my heart sank when I saw the lobby doors were locked and the lights were out.
Then all of a sudden, a shadowy lump on the couch moved and transformed into a sleepy front desk guy huddled under a blanket who shuffled to open the doors.
“¿25,000 pesos, sí?” he said as he scribbled details down in his guest book and handed me a room key. 25,000 Colombian Pesos equates to about S$12 and is cheaper than some of the hostel dorm beds I’ve booked in Colombia, but at that moment I was just happy to know I wouldn’t be sleeping on any benches that night. I wound my way through the hotel corridors, trying not to let my footsteps echo too loudly as I found my room near the back of the hotel.
The room was decent though a little dark as the sole window opened into the corridor instead of the outside. The bed was slightly too firm for my liking with a scratchy coverlet that might have been popular in an earlier decade and a pillow so flat that it had to be folded to provide any sort of support.
But it was a private space and clean, and I had my own attached toilet to boot, which is a rarity when you’ve spent almost a year sleeping in shared hostel dormitories.
Bus hopping to Santuario de Las Lajas
There were two main reasons I’d scoped out the Hotel Metropol: the first was that its location is right next to the bus station, and secondly that its check out time was at 12pm which gave me a few hours to check out the church in the morning before I returned to pick up my stuff and head for the Colombia-Ecuador border.
Solo travelling means the easiest way to save money is to travel via public transport. I found the shared collectivo or local minibus quite easily and waited for it to fill up with enough people so we could head out to Las Lajas Sanctuary. That 20-minute ride along the mountain roads cost just 2,300 COP (S$1.10).
That first glimpse of Santuario de Las Lajas
That memory of looking out into a green valley and glimpsing a tower of grey bricks and white-tipped spires is pretty spectacular. There is something so incongruous to me about this grand Gothic building that looked like it was plucked from a medieval European town, standing majestically alone in this valley surrounded by nothing but greenery.
The collectivo dropped us a little way off from the actual church, so I still had to walk a little through a little touristy village of sorts to get to the church. The Santuario de Las Lajas is built into the side of the valley, with an arched bridge that spans the canyon 100m above the Guiatara River rushing below it.
The Las Lajas Sanctuary is named for Laja, the sedimentary rock that the cliff face is made out of. This church was designated a minor basilica and dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary of Las Lajas. Las Lajas Sanctuary didn’t always look as grand as it does now – it used to have a much simpler form, and only took on this neo-Gothic architecture sometime between 1915 and 1949, thanks to donations from the churchgoers.
The best way to take in the majesty of Las Lajas is to actually go a little further away so you can see it better. I crossed the bridge and took a little walk to the left. There was a little pathway that lead me so close to a waterfall that I could feel the water splash on me, and there is also a nice rest area with a playground that’s great to have a little picnic. There was another path that led upwards so you could have a higher vantage point of the church below.
The legends of Santuario de Las Lajas
I finally decided to enter the church and check it out for myself. This church is actually missing a back wall because it’s built right into the side of the cliff, so instead of a smooth wall I saw a natural rockface instead. That wall holds an image of the Virgin Mary and key to one of the most famous legends about the Las Lajas Church.
The legend goes that while seeking refuge from a storm around the area, a woman and her deaf-mute child saw the image of Mary upon the Laja rock face when lightning struck and made the deaf-mute girl exclaim aloud. It goes on to add that when the girl died suddenly at a young age, that same woman came back to pray to Mary, and the girl was miraculously brought back to life again, which is why pilgrims from all over started to flock to this area.
Regardless of the tales and legends, the church may not be very big but it is worth popping in to have a look around. Entry is free anyway.
I headed to the museum in the basement to learn more about the history of Las Lajas. You have to pay to enter the museum, but it’s just 3,000 COP (S$1.50) and I think it’s very worthwhile to just take a stroll through these oddly lit tunnels. It’s a very different feeling from the church above. The exhibits mostly have to do with the history of the Church and there are English panels to read.
Making friends on the Teleferico
And as I left Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia had one more surprise in store for me. Instead of heading back to the collectivo drop off point to grab a shared bus back to Ipiales, I found the newly built Teleferico or cable car on the other side of the church. The teleferico service looked pretty new and not many other people seemed to even know it was there.
I bought a 10,000 COP one-way ticket and found myself in a cabin with a lovely couple. We watched the church shrink in size as the teleferico moved away, and gradually we were left with just the views of the surrounding valley to admire.
A short while later we found ourselves at the Teleferico station and caught a ride from the lone taxi that drove by us. This lovely couple refused to let me chip in for the ride, so I ended up back in downtown Ipiales for free, right on schedule, all ready to grab my bags and see a new country.
Adios Colombia and Hola Ecuador! It was a quick and thankfully fuss-free border crossing as I made my way into Ecuador and Quito for more new adventures.
- Bus – Cali to Ipiales: 50,000 COP
- Collectivo Bus – Ipiales to Las Lajas Sanctuary: 2,300 COP
- Teleferico – Las Lajas Sanctuary (1-way): 10,000 COP
- Collectivo Bus – Ipiales to Rumichaca (border): 1,700 COP
- 1 night at Hotel Metropol: 25,000 COP
- Museum ticket: 3,000 COP
The Las Lajas Sanctuary is a stunning sight and definitely one of the most beautiful places to see in the world. It is a bit out of the way for most visitors unless they are planning to cross the Colombia-Ecuador border as there are no other major attractions around the area, but if you do find yourself in the area, the Santuario de Las Lajas is definitely worth taking a little detour to see.