There are hundreds of churches and cathedrals around the world that could viably compete for the title of most beautiful, or most awe-inspiring, and many of these appear on this list. However, when it comes to spectacular settings, almost none can compare with Colombia’s Sanctuary of Las Lajas. Clinging to the verdant side of a multi-bridge spanned gorge, the most talented of Hollywood’s set designers would be hard pressed to match it this soaring masterpiece in white marble. Because its fame is overshadowed by larger and more popular shrines elsewhere in Latin America, and also because of its isolation, the Sanctuary of Las Lajas may be one of the best kept architectural secrets of the Roman Catholic Church anywhere on the planet.
When it comes to the major Catholic pilgrimage shrines of Latin America, Colombia was a relative late-comer. Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived in Colombia at the turn of the 16th century, and the Catholic Church arrived soon afterwards. However, while churches and cathedrals were quickly erected in Cartagena and other cities along the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Coast was long neglected. Moreover, for the better part of two and a half centuries, Colombia lacked a great pilgrimage shrine such as those that existed in Mexico and Peru.
That changed in the 1750s, when a series of miraculous events took place in the extreme southwestern corner of the country. In 1754, a native Colombian woman named Maria and her daughter Rosa sought shelter from a storm under a great rock called Las Lajas, which means the flat stone. As the lightning flashed, Rosa noticed what looked like a great painting of the Virgin Mary over the rock. Rosa, who was mute, shouted out when she realized what she saw.
A few years later, a blind man named Fray Juan was guided to undertake a sacred journey from Ecuador to Colombia, where he was to build a chapel. Unaided he made his way up the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, collecting donations as he went. When he arrived at Las Lajas, where the miraculous image was still imprinted on the rock, he saw to the construction of the chapel. According to tradition, he regained his sight when it was completed.
This original church stood on the spot where the two miracles occurred for nearly two centuries, during which time it became the most popular and important Christian pilgrimage destination in Colombia. In the 1950s the Sanctuary of Las Lajas was recognized as a sacred site by the Roman Catholic Church. The old chapel was removed and replaced with a magnificent new basilica, now the most popular Christian pilgrimage destination between Peru and Mexico.
The Sanctuary of Las Lajas is, simply put, one of the most architecturally unique and jaw-dropping sites in Christendom. Constructed to incorporate the Las Lajas Stone, the Sanctuary church is built precariously on the side of the steep gorge of the Guaitara River. More specifically, it stands on one end of a soaring bridge that spans the gorge. A series of bridges, tunnels and stairways connect the sanctuary to the nearby hillsides and to the river below. The overall effect of the delicate white stonework amidst green-covered mountains, white-water rapids and tumbling waterfalls makes the place look like the set of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings.
So breathtaking is the exterior that the inner sanctuary itself is often the secondary draw. Constructed in a modern-baroquish style, one side of the church is adjacent to the mountainside, which actually forms the church’s front wall. This was done so that the miraculous painting could be incorporated into the church without chipping it off the mountain. A number of niches in the rock wall, both natural and man-made, are put to clever use displaying statues and icons.
The Las Lajas Sanctuary towers over the canyon formed by the Guaitara River, just outside of the town of Ipiales on the Colombia-Ecuador border, approximately 150 miles southwest of Bogota. It is easily accessible by bus from Ipiales. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.colombia.travel/en (official tourism website of Colombia)
Because of its location in the southwestern corner of Colombia, Las Lajas is actually more accessible to nearby Quito, which has some excellent Christian sites. These include the beautiful La Compania de Jesus and the historic La Iglesia de San Francisco. The latter is home to a giant aluminum statue of the Virgin of Quito, the city’s patron saint.