Let’s get this out of the way now; yes, Colombia has a lot of churches…it’s a Catholic country, so there’s no shortage. And yes, some might say that other Colombian churches are more iconic that Las Lajas Sanctuary in Narino department: the churches of Mompos or Popayan, Bogota’s cathedral, Cartagena’s famous cupolas. However, if we’re looking for churches that combine impressive architecture, incredible location, and unusual design, not to mention good back-story, then this church surely has it all. If we’re judging an icon by it’s impact and visual power, it’s history and design, then Las Lajas is a worthy winner in this category.
To backtrack a bit: Santuario de Las Lajas is a basilica church built across a bridge on a canyon over the Guaitara River in southern Narino, near to Ipiales and the Ecuadorian border. Getting there from Ipiales is pretty easy; just grab a colectivo taxi for 2,000 COP from the bus terminal and you’ll be there in less than 15 minutes. Entry to the church and the surrounding area is free (only the small museum has a cost of a few thousand to enter), and it takes one or two hours to wander around the site, enjoying the view, and investigating the shrines and interior of the church.
The church was built between 1916 and 1949, but it has a much longer history. The church was inspired by a miracle said to have taken place in that canyon hundreds of years earlier, in 1754. A woman named Maria Mueces was caught in a strong storm along with her deaf-mute daughter Rosa. On sheltering between the lajas (a type of flat sedimentary rock, much like shale), Rosa pointed to the rock face and cried out that the mestiza was calling her. Sure enough, lightning illuminated an image of the Virgin Mary on the rock. A shrine was soon constructed, honoring the miracle, and was eventually improved, and connected by a bridge over the canyon in 1802.
Believe it or not, it’s certainly a good story, and proved the basis for a darn good church too. Rising over 330ft. out of the canyon, and with a wide bridge spanning over 160ft., Las Lajas is a remarkable architectural feat. The back wall of the church itself is actually the rock face of the cliff behind, where Rosa is said to have seen the virgin, which is an unusual design touch. It’s a popular tourist attraction, and there are a surfeit of roadside stalls selling everything from cow’s foot drinking horns to religious candles; but if you can ignore those, then the views of the church from the surrounding viewpoints (as well as a pretty waterfall across the gorge) make it well-worth a visit.
In all honesty, Las Lajas is not one of my Top 10 (or 20 for that matter) Colombian destinations. During my visit it was pretty grey and rainy though, and I’m sure that I would have been more blown away on a sunny, blue-sky Andean day. I guess it all depends on your interests and preferences; mine are more the outdoors and nature than churches. However, if you have the time, an interest in history, religion or architecture, then this undeniably spectacular church is certainly worth visiting. If only for the sight of an Angel of the Lord playing the saxophone, which is definitely not something I have seen before…