Last Stop at Las Lajas

I’d never heard of it. I was leaving Colombia to Ecuador, via buses totalling 24 hours. Cali to Quito was the plan, as quick as a I could. I had met two Aussies at my last hostel in Cali, who were planning on Quito too. After a fair journey of 12 hours to Ipiales, the border town of Colombia to Ecuador, I was ready for the next haul of a bus journey getting to Quito. The Aussies had mentioned how they wanted to check out an old church that was only 20 minutes away from where our location was, Ipiales Bus Terminal. I wasn’t keen at first, I was tired, wired and my mind was in Quito. I eventually agreed to check this place out, expecting a wooden, burnt down church in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, a pilgrim had seen the Virgin here in the 1700’s. I guess that in itself add’s to its appeal, a haunted church if you like. We took a taxi there around some windy cliff bends to this small picturesque town where Las Lajas stood. The town was very local to its Latin inheritance. I didn’t spot one other gringo tourist there. Groups of families and locals walking casually up and down the mount to Las Lajas.  This site was a pilgrimage site, for the most devoted Catholic believers to flock and send their prayers.

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We first walked past a man playing an banjo, cowboy hat on, single on his own, devoting his time. Then we passed numerous restaurant shops, with some selling rodent or giant guinea pig. This was a traditional dish I’m made to believe in Colombia and Ecuador. It intrigued me and given I eat almost anything, and definitely will try it once, then I was drawn to the first place I seen it. After walking down the footpath passing numerous stores and market shops full of Catholic merchandise, we arrived at Las Lajas. On the walls to our right, there was plaques of holy memories, dedications, dates of deaths, prayers and other religious orientated words and phrases. It was very unique to see these plaques, almost small gravestones, cemented hard into the sharp walls. It gave me the first real feel of a place of pilgrimage and religious significance. Almost that feel of walking through a graveyard. That eerie, silent feel of memories and the past.

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Las Lajas was not to be missed, nor discreet in its presence. A remarkable work of architecture, in exceptional condition and appearance despite how old it has been in stature for. A medieval looking castle, yet a church, a kings homes, yet for all Catholic pilgrims – it looked like a castle where the occupants would fight of invaders, something out of Lord of the Rings or from a tale of Rapunzel. Yet small for this type of fantastical wonder, it beared a bridge crossing the river to mainland, adding more thought to it being a fairytale monument. Its grey colour, with spiked tops, thick marble windows and busy attendance in its interior, this place was of true sacredness. Even taking pictures discreetly, wasn’t welcomed with the best eye from locals. The church itself is at a bottom of a valley, circled by a stone filled river, opposing to a consistently spouting waterfall. Looking from below to above, you get a feel that the locality of this place is for real. It’s peaceful yet busy, the walls of earth are beautifully undisturbed. It was somewhere some tourists visited but not many, it was very much a local Colombia town. Yet, it felt different, and since my time currently in Ecuador (right now I’m on the way to Banos from Quito), looking back, it actually felt more Ecuadorian.

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What this place reminded me of for its locality and sacredness was Banaue in the Philippines, South East Asia.

There are pathways up to the waterfall, down to the depths of the river, or even towering Las Lajas church with a view point with an Angelic Statue. I checked out the Waterfall, and the depths. It appears that this place was bigger than it first comes across. Below the Church, to the right, inline and practically in the depths of the rivers flowing by, appears to be a broken wall. This wall is unique, about 2 metres long, it curves around as if it was a reception point. Yet all behind it is the bottom of the mountain side, but almost looking like a small cave. I climbed and manoeuvred down to get a better look, managed to get a photo or two just for the curiosity.

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We walked back up the pathway to say our goodbyes to Las Lajas.  I decided to try the rodent/ giant guinea pig. Much to my own surprise, I didn’t like it. I like everything and always will give something a try. However it just wasn’t giving me any satisfaction. It’s tenderness wasn’t enough for me, it felt raw and un-eatable. Maybe it was the restaurant or maybe it was my own body’s reluctance after a average overnight bus journey. That’s part of travelling though, always trying new things.

As for Las Lajas, what a short, sweet and beautiful mini exploration it was. So sacred and it felt local. It didn’t feel spoilt nor touristy. I like that, it feels right to me. I admire the people that come here to pay their devotions. Inside the church was packed. The ceremony from the priests came across as passionate and special. This really did feel like a pilgrimage site that still had that sacredness belonging to it’s own existence but to its locals too. I really felt privileged to have experienced this place for 1-2 hours.

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