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Las Lajas Sanctuary (also known as Las Lajas Cathedral) is one of the most amazing cathedrals in South America. However, this stunning piece of architecture has managed to remain somewhat off the tourist trail, hidden from many travelers.
To me, this is a shame because Las Lajas Sanctuary is amazing. Honestly, it is incredibly detailed and the fact that it is built on the side of a cliff in a gorge is extremely impressive.
For any visitors making the journey from Ecuador to Colombia by land, it really well worth visiting!
For that reason, this guide I will cover everything you need to know in order to visit this magnificent place, the Las Lajas Sanctuary!
The Legend of Las Lajas, Colombia
The legend that surrounds the Las Lajas Cathedral in Colombia says that the Virgin Mary visited a mother and her deaf-mute daughter during a fierce storm. It is believed that years later after the daughter died the mother re-visited the site and the daughter was then revived by the Virgin Mary.
The area is said to have healing powers and many reports of this have been made over the years.
Las Lajas Sanctuary is famous among Colombians for both the legend and for its stunning architecture. Spanning across the Guaitara River, the gothic-style church is a breathtaking structure. It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in Colombia!
Where is Las Lajas Sanctuary located?
The Las Lajas Cathedral is located on the Colombian side of the Colombian-Ecuador border near the small city of Ipiales. The location is remote and far from any major tourist city which has helped Las Lajas Cathedral remain hidden from many and off-the-beaten-path.
If you’re traveling from Ecuador to Colombia (or vice versa) by road then you’re in luck! With a little planning, you too can easily visit this amazing place.
Getting to Ipiales (near Las Lajas)
Ipiales is the name of the city in which Las Lajas is located near. The first step to visiting Las Lajas Sanctuary is to get to Ipiales. Here is some information on how you can reach Las Lajas from both Colombia and Ecuador.
The nearest major city to the Las Lajas Cathedrals is Popayan. From Popayan, the journey is almost 8 hours to the city of Ipiales where the cathedral is located. This journey is long and as such, really only makes sense if you are on your way to Ecuador. However, if you truly fall in love with the pictures in this blog then making the long journey can be done!
From Popayan, you will need to book one of the many daily buses that make the journey to Ipiales. If you are traveling during the day then it’s important to pick a minibus as opposed to the larger buses. The time difference can be 3 hours as the windy roads prove very difficult for the larger buses.
“Super Taxis” was the cheapest company at 30,000 COP and they took 8 hours. The bus was a minivan and thus we had windows that opened (yay fresh air) and a faster journey!
The closest major city on the Ecuadorian side is Tulcan, however, this city is not really a touristic city so you will most likely be starting your journey from the capital, Quito.
From Quito, the journey is around 5 hours to the border. From the border, it should only take an hour or so to cross and from there you can either get a collectivo to the Ipiales bus terminal or if you want, a taxi straight to Las Lajas Cathedral.
*Please note: In recent times the border of Colombia and Ecuador has seen major traffic from Venezuelans heading south to Ecuador. First-hand accounts from other travelers have experienced wait times anywhere from 10 minutes to 10 hours. Please ask on the Facebook page “Backpacking South America” for a recent update.
Getting to Las Lajas Cathedral
From the border
If you have just arrived at the border from either direction or want to visit the church you can get a taxi right from the border. Taxi drivers know this route well and will take you for a small fee per car. When I visited, this was $12,000 COP or around $4 USD each way.
You can also get a collectivo (shared taxi) from the border to the Ipiales bus terminal for $3,000 COP per person and then a different collectivo from the terminal to Las Lajas for $2,500 COP each way per person.
You will just need to get to the bus terminal and get the collectivo for $2,500 COP per person each way. The collectivo is found out the front of the building opposite where the buses park. There are drivers actively finding people for the collectivos.
Alternatively, you can just grab a taxi. As for pricing, there is a sign in the taxi telling you the official rates (just in case the price has changed slightly.)
Visiting Las Lajas
Once you arrive at Las Lajas you will follow a clearly marked, large footpath down to the cathedral. This walk is only a couple hundred meters long and takes a couple of minutes. There are also some stairs you’ll need to use to get down to the actual cathedral.
There are a few places to buy souvenirs and get food along the path to Las Lajas.
It is completely free to wander around the area. There is also a cable car ride you can do, but for an extra charge. If you don’t have your camera there are photographers there who know where to get the best shots – for a small fee of course.
You can go inside the cathedral and then keep walking up to a viewpoint on the far side of the gorge. To me, this is the best vantage point and it is often where the best photos of Las Lajas are taken from.
Overall, Daniel and I spent about half an hour at Las Lajas just wandering around. I would say this is about the average amount of time people spend here.
There is also a viewpoint of Las Lajas along the road to get there. Ask your taxi driver to stop at this viewpoint if you want to check out the cathedral from a distance on the way back!
About Ipiales, Colombia
The city of Ipiales is a mere 15-minute drive from Las Lajas Sanctuary and is the best place to layover on your trip. Although the city is not a tourist mecca and really doesn’t have much else to offer, it’s still cool to visit a Colombian city where gringos are far and in-between.
It’s also a great place to do some shopping. The streets are literally filled with cheap clothing and electronic stores. With the lack of foreign tourists come really good prices too!
The city can seem kind of sketchy especially with all the armed police, however, we found the locals to be nice and friendly. With any border town, extra care should be taken as these places can be home to organized crime.
If you’re going to stop in Ipiales, be sure to read our blog that includes 5 important tips for visiting Ipiales, Colombia.
Why we opted to spend the night in Ipiales
The reason we opted to stay one night in Ipiales after visiting is because of the higher dangers of traveling at night along the highway from Ipiales to Cali. In recent times, this route has become safer and the Colombian army now occupies the road with a huge presence, however, it still isn’t the safest route to take at night.
Just to be on the safer side, we decided to spend the night to allow up to travel during daylight hours only.
Where to stay in Ipiales
We stayed at a hotel called Royal Class Hotel. It was a nice place to stay with friendly staff and secure rooms. Although it wasn’t luxurious, it was great value and a good option for travelers on a low to mid-range budget! The location was in a busy area only meters from the main square.
Six Avenue Hostel is the only actual hostel in the city for backpackers. They also have a central location and offer both dorm beds and private rooms for cheap prices. Although I didn’t stay here myself, they have really good reviews.
If you want luxury then you only have one option, the Loft Hotel. This hotel is relatively new and as such, it’s gorgeous with a modern design. All rooms have air conditioning, TV’s with Netflix, and a private bathroom. They also have an onsite restaurant for breakfast and a sauna!
I had first seen the Las Lajas Cathedral on Instagram a few years back and remember thinking wow, that place is beautiful! A few years later I happened to be heading to the closest city to the Las Lajas Sanctuary and just had to jump at the opportunity. The extra night stay in Ipiales to see the church was totally worth it and I am glad I went.
Where to go next?