The Santuario de Las Lajas, a few kilometers from the city of Ipiales in the border department of Nariño, is a towering tribute built around a mysterious image of Our Lady of Las Lajas.
The stone church, the stout bridge that supports it, and the gorge it occupies form one of Colombia’s most striking landscapes.
A testament to the devotion of generations of followers who built successive expansions of the monument, the sanctuary continues to draw devotees who erect plaques of devotion and gratitude, and fill standing-room-only worship services.
The sanctuary is fresh off a new accolade after the British newspaper The Telegraph included Las Lajas on its list of the world’s most beautiful churches.
Many variations on the legend of the site’s appearance agree that a fierce storm broke as an indigenous mother and her young daughter traversed the narrow gorge en route to Ipiales from the nearby village of Potosí in the mid-18th century.
Bracing against the rain and thunder, they took shelter under a rock overhang. The child, who was deaf and mute, spotted an image of the Virgin Mary on the rock wall. Miraculously, she spoke for the first time in order to alert her mother of the Virgin’s presence.
Later, when the storm subsided, mother and child arrived safely in Ipiales, and word spread of the miraculous apparition of the Virgin.
In the years that followed, the earliest straw and adobe versions of a chapel were built around the image on the rock face. A series of renovations and expansions continued throughout the 19th century and culminated with the current neo-Gothic iteration, which was completed in the 1940s.
The site’s religious significance prompted Pope Pius XII to designate Las Lajas as a minor basilica in 1954. In 2007, El Tiempo readers chose it as one of the Seven Wonders of Colombia based on its engineering, architectural, and historical value.
Most visits begin by walking down from the highway above the site. A jumble of tiendas, mini-restaurants, and simple outdoor asados offer hungry travelers the usual fare of tinto, assorted pastries, and empanadas, as well as grilled cuy, a guinea pig cousin and local delicacy.
From there, a 15-minute walk descends a pathway at first lined with stands selling candles and replicas of the image of the Virgin. Then come the sanctuary, rosaries, crucifixes and souvenir keychains that soon give way to plaques of thanksgiving to the Virgin cemented by pilgrims to the rock wall of the canyon, nearly covering it as it approaches the sanctuary.
Opposite the souvenir stands and plaques, the path passes a handful of picnic sites and scenic overlooks as the church slides into sight. The imposing height of the church is matched by the
depth of the gorge, which gradually comes into view, along with the massive bridge that crosses the gap and supports the church.
Eventually, the path reaches the southeastern flank of the sanctuary, and a flight of stairs leads to the plaza atop the bridge and the main entrance to the church.
The church’s white and gold interior is beautiful in its own right, but your eyes are drawn to the relatively simple gray wall and altar at the front.
Here, there was no need for a fourth wall, as the ceiling and lateral walls of the sanctuary meet the natural rock face of the gorge, framing and protecting the celebrated image of the Virgin, who is pictured holding the infant Jesus. Saints Francis and Dominic kneel at her feet.
Outside, the wide bridge spanning the precipitous gorge offers a variety of perspectives of the architectural gem. The river and valley and a small waterfall are visible to the east.
From the bridge, opposite the church, paths lead to other observation points upstream and directly below. While the site bustles most weekends, it is possible to find quieter places along these paths where it’s easier to enjoy the sanctuary’s proud stance above the river.
In October, President Juan Manuel Santos inaugurated a 1.5-kilometer-long teleférico (cable car), allowing visitors to access the sanctuary directly from the Pan-American highway. Further plans for this place of worship include a ‘gastronomic zone’ and events center.
While the new facility may provide better vantage points of the church and narrow gorge, one hopes that commercialization doesn’t detract from the site’s unique setting.
The natural surroundings and isolation of this basilica, as it shoots up from the otherwise uninhabitable canyon, are the centerpiece of this religious site, and where pilgrims from all over the world, come to pay their respects to the Virgin and ask for a miracle.