Most people crossing into Colombia from Equator take a taxi straight to Ipiales, where the closest bus terminal is located. But what most people don’t realize is that only few miles farther is one of South America’s most beautiful and unique churches, Las Lajas Basilica.
The Basilica is not only a church but also a Marian Shrine. Built to encase a small grotto that contains a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. The image is said to have imprinted on the grotto’s wall after an apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen there. Think Virgin Mary toast but more legit, and way more beautiful.
Our cab driver was thrilled when Ben and I told him to take us to Las Lajas instead of Ipiales. Not only did he end up charging us a rate that would put a NYC cab meter to shame. He was genuinely proud of the church. Explaining to us in Spanglish that the church had been built solely from donations given by devotees and that it is an important pilgrimage site for the Colombian people. He even pulled over a few times so we could get sweeping pictures of the Colombian countryside and the church.
We decided to drop off our bags at our hostel, Casa Pastoral, before exploring the church and surrounding areas. Casa Pastoral was an easy choice. Not only did it seem like the only option in town, it was less then $10 USD a night for both of us and had an incredible view of the church and casacada (waterfall).
We soon found out that Casa Pastoral is not a hostel but a monastery that allows travelers to stay in empty nun dormitories. Ben and I are not married and not catholic. So I don’t know exactly how many rules we broke regarding sharing a nun dormitory in a monastery without being joined in holy matrimony, but I figured it was a few. So when we had to walk through a small chapel to get to our room, I was just happy we didn’t burst into flames.
To get to the Basilica, we followed a cobble stone path that starts just a few feet from Casa Pastoral and continues around of the deep gorge of the Guaitara River. The path is plastered with plaques giving thanks to the Virgin for the miracles she has worked in the lives of the Colombian people since the time of the apparition.
The architectural and natural beauty of this place was overwhelming. It was astonishing to see a neo-gothic church inside of a canyon. Of course the church was built this way for good reason. Allowing the focal point of the church’s chapel to be the rock face where the image of the Virgin is located and can be seen today.
We could not stop taking pictures. With every new angle of the camera came a new delightful perspective of this seeming supernatural place.
Not to be out done by the exterior of the church, the church’s chapel is just as magnificent. It’s high arched ceiling donned with chandeliers and surrounded by stain glass windows and white gold gilded columns. The altar’s walls, contrastingly different from the rest of the chapel, are formed entirely from the natural grotto that contains the Virgin’s image.
We arrived after mass. There were throngs of people pushing their way to the altar. All wishing to be anointed by the priest with splashes of holy water. It was quite the frenzy but we did manage to take a few good photos of the fabulous image that has spanned centuries without losing it’s brilliance.
The image’s colors are so vibrant and exquisite in detail that Ben and I thought we were looking at a fresco painting done on the face of a cliff after the apparition was seen. Only later did we find out the image’s colors are of the rock itself and not of paint or pigment. Even more incredible, the rock is perfectly colored to the depth of several feet according to German Archaeologists who bore core samples from several spots in the image when the church as finally completed in 1949.
The image was not made of human hands, and scientist and historians are still at a lost to explain it. There is no natural geological cause where nature reproduces human faces with such perfection. It may forever remain an enigma.
The Apparition Story:
The image was found after a miraculous event in 1754. When a Native American named Maria was journeying to Ipiales with her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa. Weary from the trek Maria stopped to rest at a place called Las Lajas (the Rocks) while her daughter went to play. Soon Rosa emerged from a grotto shouting “Mama! There’s a women in here with a boy in here arms.” Shocked from hearing her daughter speak for the first time and frightened because of the rumors that the grotto in Las Lajas was haunted, Maria grabbed Rosa and left quickly for Ipiales without seeing the figures the girl was talking about.
No one believed Maria’s recount of what happened, but as news spread of the event spread. Some asked if perhaps is was true. After all, the child could now talk.
A few days, later Rosa went missing. Maria guessed that Rosa went back to the cave. Often the girl would say that the lady was calling to her. Maria ran to Las Lajas to find her daughter in front of a noble Lady and playing affectionately with a Child. Maria fell to her knees. She had seen the Blessed Virgin and the Divine Infant.
Maria and Rosa keep what they saw a secret but often went to the cave to place flowers and light candles. One day Rosa fell ill and died. Maria took Rosa’s body to the cave to ask the Lady to restore her life. The Virgin moved by the sadness of Maria, obtained Rosa’s resurrection from her Divine Son.
Maria overjoyed that Rosa was saved returned home. It was not long before everyone in the village saw that Rosa was alive. The next morning a crowd gathered at the grotto at Las Lajas.
It was then that the marvelous image of Our Lady was discovered. The image is of a young woman of Latin American decent. The child Jesus is in her arms. On one side is St. Francis and on the other St. Dominic, the founders of the two orders that first evangelize Colombia and who Colombians have always had a special devotion. The two-dimensional crowns of metal were the only things added to the image later by devotees.