The last stop before Colombia’s border with Ecuador is the rough border town of Ipiales. If it weren’t for the fascinating Las Lajas Sanctuary, we probably would never have set foot in this town. To get there we found ourselves on a horrendous 10-hour journey passing hidden fields of illegal coca to see one of the most impressive cathedrals in Colombia.
We began our journey to Ipiales driving through the Andes Mountains on a winding, bumpy single lane highway. After a stop at a greasy roadside diner, the calls from many of the bus passengers for ‘bolsas’ (plastic bags) began. Do people never learn that their stomachs can’t handle greasy roadside food on a mountain road trip? We thought the vomiters would be the worst part of our journey until our bus was pulled over by the army. Every male on the bus had to disembark, bringing their carry-on bags. Maggie was looking out the bus window to see heavily armed soldiers perform body searches on the men as they stood spread-eagle with their arms on the side of the bus. It was a little terrifying, until the soldier that was searching Richard started laughing. Apparently, they were only concerned about 20 year old male Colombians, not foreign backpackers. We were told by other passengers that they were searching for weapons and drugs. I have to say, it was quite comforting to know that none of the other passengers had guns. After a few more uneventful hours we arrived in Ipiales.
Las Lajas Sanctuary
Our only reason for going through that bus ride was to view the spectacular Catedral de Las Lajas. The legend of the cathedral tells the story from the 1700s of a mother and her blind-mute daughter who sought shelter in a cave. It was in that cave where the daughter uttered her first words. She said she heard the Virgin Mary calling her. Everyone believed it to be a miracle and since then, the cave has been visited by faithful pilgrims. Over the years, the cave became a temple and then grew to be larger and larger until in the 1990s, it became the impressive sanctuary it is today.
We arrived at the site above the narrow, steep ravine of the Guaitara River. As we walked down the side of the ravine, we passed a wall covered in tiles printed with stories of miraculous recoveries after visiting the church.
Finally, the cathedral came into view. We could see the church’s tall grey spires with white accents poking up from below. The Gothic building is pretty on its own. Its cliff-side location and matching bridge which spans the green ravine, makes it go from pretty to stunning. The depth and narrowness of the ravine adds an unexpected drama to the setting. It is a tremendous looking architectural accomplishment.
The bridge has sculptures of angels which lead from a small chapel to the magnificent sanctuary. The church’s large wooden doors have intricate carvings and colourful paintings on the transoms above. Many pilgrims were making their way along the bridge into the grand cathedral.
Inside the church is a lovely long white nave with large pillars and an understated apse at the front. There are two tiers of gorgeous stained-glass windows on the walls. Crystal chandeliers hang from the vaulted white and gold ceiling. It’s a beautiful compliment to the spectacular exterior. Under the church is a small museum with artifacts from the church’s history as well as indigenous people in the area.
After spending a few hours climbing up and down the ravine, we made our way back to explore the rough city of Ipiales. Downtown are two different squares which were both bustling with vendors and small food stands. Of course, each square has a Spanish colonial church. During the day we felt perfectly safe, but at night it is not recommended to walk around.
Most people stay in Ipiales on their way to or from Ecuador. Since we had already traveled extensively in Ecuador, we instead headed north to the city of Popayan. The countryside between Ipiales and Popayan is very mountainous. We passed steep slopes covered in vegetation including long green grass, trees and shrubs. We saw many beautiful waterfalls cascading over rocky cliffs.
Six hours north of Ipiales is the ‘White City’ of Popayan. This colonial city was established in the 1500s. The historic centre consists of pretty, cobblestone streets with colonial buildings and a central square, Parque Caldas. It has been called the ‘White City’ because most of the buildings around the park are stark white. Some have colourful doors, but most are in natural wood. The historic centre is a functioning part of this city so isn’t as quaint as other colonial towns we’ve seen, but it does have its own charm.
Parque Caldas is surrounded by imposing colonial buildings with tall pillars and small balconies. The main building is Cathedral Nuestra Senora de La Asuncion. With a large grey dome, white façade and attached Torre del Reloj (clock tower), it is a very striking building. Parque Caldas is a busy square with large trees housing songbirds and is filled with locals and tourists eating ice-cream and deep fried snacks. Unfortunately, we were in Popayan during the nation-wide protests and many of these beautiful buildings were spray painted by protesters. We watched during the day as workers painstakingly stripped of the spray-painted stucco and refinished the buildings walls. There’s a good view of the historic centre from a nearby hill called El Morro del Tulcan. At night the park is beautifully illuminated and still busting with tourists.
Getting to Las Lajas Sanctuary
The Sanctuary is a 15-minute taxi ride from Ipiales and costs 10,000 COP. There are collectivos (shared mini buses) that will take people to and from the bus terminal for 4,000 COP each. Both drop you off at a parking lot above the sanctuary. There’s a paved path where you pass many vendors selling trinkets on your way downhill to the church.
Getting to Ipiales
To/From Pasto or Popayan – There are many buses from both Pasto (2hrs) or Popayan (6 hours) bus terminals. We used Supertaxi and found them to be punctual, clean and reliable.
To get to/from Cali (11 hrs) – There are many buses leaving day and night from the main bus terminals in both cities. We used Boliviano to get to Cali. They were the most expensive, but we had movies, reclining seats and they arrived 30 minutes early.
For any bus always check their expected arrival time as it will be an indication of the number of small towns they will stop at on the drive.
Getting to Popayan
To/From Bogota (12 hrs) – There are many buses leaving either city day and night. We use Busbud.com to book several buses during our time in Colombia, or you can go to many large bus company’s websites to book. There are also flights between Popayan and Bogota.
To/From Cali (3hrs 15 min) – There are a large variety of buses and minibuses between the two. Remember to check the arrival times to know how long your trip will be. Many make multiple stops making the trip much longer
Coming Next: The Extraordinary Wax Palms of Valle de Cocora
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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