15 April 2015
Off the beaten track in Colombia: Journey to the magnificent Las Lajas Sanctuary – one of the most unique churches in the world
For those already heading down to the boundary with Ecuador, a must see on any tour of Colombia before crossing the border is Las Lajas Sanctuary close to the town of Ipiales in the southern Colombian department of Nariño.
The basilica of Las Lajas Sanctuary is built in a very unique location - spanning a spectacular canyon, surrounded by waterfalls and the Guáitara River flowing by below, the elaborate neo-Gothic church was constructed on a precipice situated 100 metres above the base of a dramatic gorge with only a small bridge connecting it to the opposite side. The first stone was laid in 1916 and the extraordinary structure was finally completed in 1949. Certainly, its stunning location had something to do with the lengthy and painstaking construction time.
Las Lajas Sanctuary has regularly featured on top ten lists of the world's most original and unique churches and it was declared a National Monument in 1984. As well as the church being architecturally remarkable, the valley, river and mountains that surround it lend it an incredibly magical feel. Topographically it is indisputably the most beautiful in the world and Las Lajas appears in the valley like a castle in a fairytale. In reality it is just as enchanted with a legend all of its own.
It can be said that the starting point of the history of Santuario de Las Lajas is the discovery of the image of the Virgin Mary. This is a fascinating story as it involves the first miracle recorded at the site. The inspiration for the church's conception was an extraordinary happening back in 1750 when Maria Muesces de Quiñonez and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in the canyon during a thunderstorm. They sought refuge in a cave thought to be inhabited by the devil in the gigantic shale rocks known as Las Lajas, when to Maria's astonishment, her daughter Rosa spoke for the very first time, exclaiming, "Mother, the Lady is calling me!" and pointed to a lightning-illuminated image of the Virgin Mary on the rock face. A few days after the incident, Rosa went missing from her home and her mother guessed that she had returned to the cave. Maria ran to the same spot where they had sheltered and found her daughter playing with a lady and a boy child. Maria fell to her knees before the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Not long afterwards, Rosa became seriously ill and fell lifeless. A distraught Maria carried Rosa's body to Las Lajas where she asked the Virgin Mary to bring her daughter back to life. The Lady resurrected Rosa and an overjoyed Maria returned to Ipiales to tell her remarkable story. The apparition and consequent miracle prompted mass pilgrimage to the site where worshippers placed wild flowers and lit candles in cracks in the rocks. Soon after, as word spread about the sacred site, Fray Gabriel Villafuerte established a thatched adobe church surrounding the cave and a new cathedral was envisioned for the miraculous location. Today, the church's altar is set into the rock face where the Virgin Mary appeared to Rosa over two hundred and fifty years ago.
From the inconspicuous village above it is a 15 minute walk down to the sanctuary referred to as "a miracle of God over the abyss" along a pathway lined with plaques giving thanks for the many miracles as well as a statue of Manuel de Rivera, a blind man cured by the virgin who subsequently walked through Ecuador raising money through charity to contribute to the replacement of the modest original thatched chapel. According to some, Las Lajas is second only to Lourdes in the number of miracles claimed for it. Below the church is an interesting museum that tells the history of the construction of the church along with a number of religious artifacts.
Most people who visit Las Lajas Sanctuary only stay for a few hours to see the church on their way to Ecuador in the south or continuing on their travels north in Colombia. For an unforgettable experience you can stay longer to see the church illuminated by night. Las Lajas has become a popular destination for religious believers from all parts of Latin America. If you want to be in line for the pilgrimage to mass you'll have to visit on a Sunday when the church is at its busiest.
Ipiales, which lies 4 miles west from the church, is the nearest town and has basic amenities; there are several small hotels and restaurants. Look out for the Nariño speciality of guinea pig (cuy) on the menu at local restaurants!
The Uncover Colombia Team