Hogwarts?! @ Santuario Las Lajas, Ipiales

Candles @ Santuario Las Lajas, Ipiales

As the sun set, we pulled into Ipiales after a long but scenic ten hour bus ride. We picked one of the many taxi drivers at our demand and arrived to our hotel shortly after. It seemed as though no one else was in the hotel, as the staff were super attentive and friendly, even handing us a menu and ordering our late night take away dinner to be delivered directly to us. We laid back in our lush hotel room, there weren’t a lot of options in Ipiales and weirdly enough this place was one of the cheapest and not too bad at all. We ate our albiet pretty terrible dinner and slept off the long journey south.

Early the next morning, we packed a little day bag and headed to the big draw card in the area, the Santuario Las Lajas. A half an hour collectivo away, we had heard this place shouldn’t be missed.

We arrived in a carpark and started following the signs down to the church. As the sanctuary was located in a canyon, we started the steep downhill decent, stopping for a quick coffee and bite to eat at one of the many comidors lining the cobbled streets. As we descended down what felt like a thousand stairs, I highly doubted that the climb back up would be worth whatever it was that we were about to encounter, and I made my objections clear to Alice. Soon enough though, we turned a corner and it was as if I had stepped into Hogwarts. The beautiful basilica church stood so impressively half way down this canyon, and was probably one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen.

Sacred Site @ Santuario Las Lajas, Ipiales

The site became a sanctuary in 1754 when a woman and her daughter took refuge from a storm between the gigantic rocks. While sheltering from the storm, the woman’s daughter pointed into the canyon and claimed that the “Mestiza” was calling her. They claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the wall of the canyon and the image of the Virgin Mary can be seen on the wall today (painted of course) although some still say that the apparition still appears to them and has healing powers. The site has been a pilgrimage site since the 18th century with the first shrines being built in the middle of the same century. The church was built between January 1916 and August 1949, funded by donations from church goers. It is 100 metres tall and connects to the other side of the canyon by a 50 metre bridge built in the same basilica style as the church.

Honestly it is one of the most impressive and beautiful sites, once you get past the extortion of the whole church part and exuberant funds poured into the building that could’ve helped hundreds of homeless etc.

As you walk down towards the church, there are hundreds of plaques cemented into the wall, all of which are thanking the Virgin Mary for all the “miracles” that she has performed for people. Every inch of the wall and onto the walkway was covered in these plaques, it was very beautiful.

Plaques @ Santuario Las Lajas, Ipiales

Once we had taken around a thousand photos and explored the underground tombs/museum (the museum was absolute rubbish, don’t go), we made the hike back up to the carpark and caught a collectivo back to Ipiales.

Ipiales itself is a quaint little town, but it is obviously a border town, looking slightly run down and littered with stalls of electronics, Adidad, Rebox, and other fake labels. We grabbed our bags from the hotel and hopped into the next collectivo for the half hour trip to the border to Ecuador.

This was one of the busiest borders we had seen. We were aware of the Venezuelan refugees and to expect a long wait at the border, but to be confronted with the hundreds of refugees waiting/sleeping and practically living at the border was heartbreaking.

We were ushered into the locals and tourists line and before long made it through the Colombian border control. Afterwards we walked across a bridge to Ecuador and the border control building there, to see hundreds more refugees gated off into a seperate line, waiting for their turn to try to enter Ecuador. It was very confronting as their line had been cordoned off from “our” line with a six foot high temporary fence. There were also a hundred distressed children who had had to visit the temporary medical tent set up for injections needed to enter Ecuador. I assume these were not only the basic shots but also yellow fever, which is an entry requirement for Ecaudor when leaving Colombia to reduce the disease from entering the country.

Wax @ Santuario Las Lajas, Ipiales

We were ushered into a line by an official which we later found out turned out to be the “special cases” line. We only learnt this when we arrived to near the front of the line that “special cases” meant women with children, elderly, disable and of course- Europeans! It literally said this on a sign at the front. We were so embarrassed and felt so terrible for all of the other people waiting in the Venezuelan and “less important” line. How could “Europeans” be considered among children and people with disabilities?! Aside from the fact that Jess is not European but conveniently white and foreign looking.

After around 10 women and their 100 children pushed in front of us without even a look, we eventually made it into the next waiting area and through border control within an hour or so. A young mother had a very distressed baby, and everyone insisted that she proceed in front, everyone except one middle aged Colombian woman, who had pushed in front of us without even acknowledging it. Needless to say, I tutted really loudly, which really showed her…

Façade @ Santuario Las Lajas, Ipiales

We walked out and filled the last two seats in a collectivo that would take us around half an hour down the road to the border town of Ibarra, where we jumped on the next bus to Otavalo. At this point the hunger had set in, our bladders at bursting point and we had all of two minutes to get on the bus as it was leaving immediately. After the quickest pee of our lives and food grab, the bus left 30 minutes later.

We had made it to Ecuador, but we were very sad to be leaving Colombia, which had quickly taken over as our favourite country so far. Off to the biggest artisan market in South America, hold onto your wallets!

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