Ipiales and the Santuario de Las Lajas. Adios Colombia!
I can’t help but remember some sadness when we traveling south from Laguna De La Cocha and approaching the final destination of our journey in Colombia. A worn in white sedan was our collectivo ride from the lakeside village to Ipiales, which was a border town between Colombia and Ecuador. The mood was somber in my head, and felt like I was watching the last grains of sand disappear from an hourglass that I had secretly hoped would be full forever. I didn’t want to accept the fact that our adventure in this country was almost up. Perhaps it was because the previous two and half months felt like a full years worth of memories, and in my heart I knew Colombia had a lot more to give. This is one of the bittersweet aspects of travel when facing the inevitable departure that looms ahead in plain sight. It makes your heart rush in a way that you can’t enjoy but can’t despise either. You hate leaving it behind, but you love the excuse to come back for more. In a way it’s like you are closing a door but deliberately leaving it unlocked for another moment in time.
Ipiales itself was not something worth writing about from the little we saw. It was a border town by nature, and did not have much for outsiders to see in the town itself other than transfer modes of transportation towards points unknown. I’ve heard that some towns accessible in the area have some great views and abundant natural resources, but we were not entertaining the idea of hunting for treasure at the time. The main attraction to this town was the ethereal basilica of Las Lajas, and that was the only thing on our agenda. We caught a cab from the large bus station hub and within minutes we were heading away from the border along quiet windy roads descending down the plateau and into a valley. Small houses and little plots of cultivated land occupied this sleepy area as our road kept weaving down into lower lands. Eventually, a small gorge with buildings on either side indicated that we were getting into the little village surrounding the basilica. Our collectivo driver dropped us off, and indicated where lodging could be found. We stumbled into one of the few hotels that appeared to be open during this slow time of year, which also happened to be called “Hotel Dan”. The universe was too obvious at times, and we checked into our accommodations immediately. It was getting a dark at that time, so we decided to stroll through town and take a look at the church we’ve been hearing about.
The town we explored almost felt abandoned. There were small shops with their doors open and lights on, but appeared to be catering to the locals that lived there year round. Small groups of children were playing soccer on beautiful cobblestone walking streets, with the faint sound of Latin music playing out of open windows. The rows of buildings that lined the streets all appeared to be targeting large groups of tourist crowds, which were noticeably missing, thus almost every single one was closed and didn’t look like they were going to open until their customer base returned. The buildings were typical of the Spanish Colonial style architecture, with some large church like structures that appeared to be weathering away without much indication of plans for restoration. My heart pined to explore past it’s huge, old wooden doors to see what kind of history was held within it’s arched concrete walls. A path meandered down into the gorge where the church was located, and we soon found ourselves staring in awe at the sight in front of us.
Santuario de Las Lajas is an architectural masterpiece that almost seems like it’s out of place in a random valley of Colombia, yet it’s presence is cemented in history in the green gorge that it’s massive arches span across. Legend has it that in the 1700’s, a mother named Maria and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were seeking shelter in an epic thunderstorm in between the large flat rocks, or “Lajas”. During the storm, her daughter Rosa noticed an image on one of the rocks that appeared to be the Virgin Mary, and she spoke to her mother to point it out, which is the first recorded miracle associated with this location. Since then, churches have been built around the rock with the image, and believers long and far travel to Las Lajas to ask for a miracle of their own. Donations from fellow worshipers and families looking for miracles have been funding the multiple versions of the churches, and the current Gothic Revival style showpiece was constructed slowly between 1916-1949 in the same manner. The path leading up to and around the church was covered in plaques of miracles that families were hoping that would come true. There must have been thousands cemented into the earth with countless families asking for help or thanking for the miracles that were performed. I can only imagine the great lengths these families would travel to this site to ask for help in their trying times, making the pilgrimage from countries that were days away by bus.
The church was absolutely phenomenal in both grandeur and it’s physical setting. It rises about 100 meters above the fast moving muddy waters of the Guaitara River below, and has an arched bridge that spans the entire width of the canyon. The church’s color scheme was probably what made it so attractive to my eyes, rising from the green valley in earthy grey tones and stark white highlights. It was one of those places where your inner voice was instantly hushed by the presence of this sacred site. Soaring stain glass windows depicting scenes from the bible were protected by ornate iron gates. Angels were on every pillar of the bridge spanning the gorge, each of them playing a musical instrument. I was particularly drawn to the one playing the saxophone for some reason. The large wooden doors to the church opened with ease and unveiled the sacred space hidden within. Gold leafed arches, cavernous ceilings, cream colored walls, and beautiful chandeliers were a feast for the eyes. The alter was positioned directly in front of the very rock that the Virgin Mary’s image was first seen by the young Rosa back in the 1700’s. With a bit of imagination, it was possible to see the shape of the sacred icon. We explored the church while the sun set behind the hills and were eventually notified that the church was getting locked up. We left, leaving the rest of the exploring for the morning and sought some hot food wherever we could find it.
In the morning, we woke up extra early to catch the morning light on the church and the valley. We wandered over the arched bridge and up a path to get a glimpse at the church in it’s setting from the top of the gorge. The path went past some small dwellings planted on the top of the hillside, afforded views of a tall waterfall, and eventually up to a great lookout point where we were the only ones soaking in the stunning view. There was a small local boy who appeared above us and would get our attention by throwing flowers, then disappear when we would try an interact. I could only imagine what growing up in an isolated town like this could be like for him or any kid in this area. We walked back down to the church and found a different path around the opposite side that led us up into the hidden parts of the village. There, we encountered older women, presumably llama farmers, tending their animals and doing chores. One lady had about 6 kittens outside of her house, and she spoke with us briefly asking us if we wanted a cat. It seemed to be an older crowd in this village, and I’m guessing that the younger generation left for other opportunities a while ago. Small empty plazas certainly breathed life still, but that was only an assumption of my own made by observation and imagination.
After getting our fill of the town, we gathered our belongings and decided it was time to part. We went through our inventory to make sure we had everything we needed and nothing we shouldn’t have, and went on our way once again. Another cab ride back to Ipiales brought us back to the main station, where we bought our last Colombian treats before hopping on a van headed for the border. Colombia gave us to some of our most treasured memories of travels to date. We had been in almost every climate and environment imaginable on earth in this warm and welcoming country. We had experienced a life where the desert meets the Caribbean, hiked up to dizzying heights in the highland alpine climates, explored waterfalls within the Amazon, snorkeled in coral reefs off a Caribbean island, lived the slow life in a sweaty isolated river village, got a taste of high altitude Latin metropolitan life in Bogota, visited cloud forests and coffee farms, went paragliding in tobacco country, received astronomy free astronomy lessons in the desert, and met some of the warmest and friendliest folks on the planet. In case you haven’t noticed, we loved Colombia and hope that a return trip is in the cards for us somewhere down the line. Adios Colombia! Te queremos!