Las Lajas Sanctuary is one of the best hidden gems in Colombia. Like something out of a medieval fairytale, this gothic revival church sites suspended 100 meters above the Guáitara River canyon. Located just a 15 minute drive from the small, remote border city of Ipiales, the grandiose nature of Las Lajas Shrine is something of a surprise. Local history states that the church came to be out of a miracle, thus turning it into the pilgrimage site it is today. Known widely to Colombians but still lesser known to international travelers, Santuario de Las Lajas is perfect for travelers willing to get off the beaten path to explore Colombia’s most unique landmarks.
WHERE IS LAS LAJAS SANCTUARY LOCATED?
Santuario de Las Lajas is located about 15 minutes away from Ipiales, Colombia. Ipiales is a small city on the border of Colombia and Ecuador. English is rare in Ipiales, compared to other cities in Colombia. Download Spanish offline in the Google Translate app to ease with communication and navigation.
HOW TO GET TO LAS LAJAS SANCTUARY
Transportation to Las Lajas is relatively straightforward compared to other off the beaten path destinations I’ve visited, however it definitely requires some amount of patience. As Santuario de Las Lajas is located on the border of Ecuador and Colombia, visiting from Quito, Ecuador is the overwhelmingly popular choice. I was already in Colombia, so I started my journey to Las Lajas in Cartagena. My trip was filled with unnecessary confusion, frustration, and stress, that mostly would have been avoided had there been more thorough information on how to visit, and my Spanish was more fluent. To help you avoid the same situation I was in, here’s what you should know before visiting:
How to Visit Santuario de Las Lajas from Colombia
If you’re already in Colombia, visiting Las Lajas Sanctuary will require flying into the Pasto airport. Colombian airline, Avianca, offers flights to Pasto from many cities in Colombia. These flights typically require a layover in Bogotá. Nonstop flights to Pasto from cities other than Bogotá are rare, and typically pricey, with the exception of Cali. Book your flight to Pasto at least a few weeks in advance. Even flights with layovers sell out quickly and are scarce.
I recommend having $200 USD in cash before leaving the Pasto airport for Ipiales. There is a secure ATM inside the airport terminal at the entrance for check-in, if you need to make a withdrawal.
Traveling to Las Lajas Sanctuary from Pasto
Upon reaching Pasto, you’ll need to take a taxi to your hotel in Ipiales. Official taxis are located on the lower level of the airport terminal. Cars will have their license plate printed on the side of the vehicle. Shared taxis are very common in this area of Colombia. I didn’t realize this, and was alarmed when a stranger stepped into my taxi! As a result, taxi fares to Ipiales are negotiated per person. Taxis do not have a running meter here. Make certain to negotiate your fare before leaving the airport, to avoid being scammed later. Bring cash. Credit cards are not accepted in taxis.
When you reach Ipiales, save the contact information for your driver. Finding a taxi to take you back to the airport in Pasto nonstop is extremely difficult. Local taxis in Ipiales aren’t allowed to drive to the airport in Pasto. If you take a local taxi in Ipiales, expect to switch taxi drivers in Pasto’s city center, where a Pasto taxi will take you the rest of the way. This adds a half hour or more to the drive to the airport. If you have the WhatsApp information for your original driver, you can prearrange a pickup back to the airport with them, and avoid the stress. I recommend leaving Ipiales for Pasto at least four hours before your flight time.
We ended up in a very stressful situation when our taxi driver in Ipiales couldn’t drive us due to car issues, and ended up putting us into a large van with another driver instead. This driver was unreliable and non-communicative, stopping multiple times for no apparent reason. He then drove us down to Pasto, switching us to another driver again. We left with an extra two hours of padding, and ended up frantically running into the airport, almost missing our flight.
Buses to Ipiales are available from the Pasto bus terminal. The bus terminal is roughly a half hour drive from the airport. To reach the bus terminal, you will need to take a taxi from the airport to Pasto’s city proper.
HOW TO VISIT LAS LAJAS SHRINE FROM QUITO, ECUADOR
Las Lajas Sanctuary is roughly four hours from Quito, Ecuador, making it one the best day trips from Quito. Visiting Las Lajas from Quito is also more popular than visiting from Colombia. If I visited Las Lajas again, I’d absolutely visit from Quito instead! It’s much more straightforward and convenient.
Buses run regularly between Quito and Ipiales. Alternatively, you can hire a private driver for the day. Flying to Quito is much easier than flying to Pasto, as Quito is a major city, with several domestic and international flights daily.
Between Las Lajas Sanctuary and Quito is a whimsical, topiary cemetery called Túlcan. Visiting Túlcan is very convenient, as its right on the way. If you hire a driver, make sure to add Túlcan to your itinerary to make the most of your trip.
LAS LAJAS SANCTUARY ADMISSION FEE
Visiting Las Lajas is free. No tickets or advanced reservation is required. If you’re planning on taking the cable car to the church, that is a fee.
SANTUARIO DE LAS LAJAS HOURS AND WHEN TO VISIT
The Las Lajas basilica is open 9am to 6pm, daily. Occasionally the church is lit up at night, however safety in Ipiales can be a bit mixed. Visiting during the day will allow you to see all the magnificent detail of the church, as well as catch a glimpse of the inside sanctuary.
Avoid visiting on January 15th, the anniversary of the monument. Also aim to avoid Holy Week. During both holidays, the basilica will be crowded.
Las Lajas is an active church, and does hold frequent services for parishioners. Be respectful, and keep voices and flash photography to a minimum when inside the church.
HOW TO SEE SANTUARIO DE LAS LAJAS
Las Lajas is accessible from Ipiales by taxi. The church is approximately 15 minutes from Ipiales. On the drive, make sure your driver pulls over to the Las Lajas mirador to catch a glimpse of the cathedral and gorge from afar. Look out your windows! You’ll see vibrant buildings, and guinea pig statues (it’s a delicacy here).
Eventually, you’ll reach a small town just outside of Las Lajas. From the taxi drop-off point, expect to walk about 15 minutes down to the basilica. This is an easy, paved walk. It is definitely not a hike. Keep in mind that it will require walking uphill the whole way back. The walk does include some stairs, for those who may have physical limitations.
There is a nearby cable car for those looking to get a bird’s eye view of the church. Instead of taking a taxi to the village drop off point, you’ll take it to the cable car station. Unfortunately, the cable car wasn’t in operation when I was there. Cable car rides can be purchased as single tickets or roundtrips. I recommend being dropped off at the taxi drop off spot in town, then taking the cable car up out of the gorge to leave.
Make sure to arrange a taxi fare with your driver before leaving that includes a roundtrip fare at a prearranged pick up time. If you’re switching pickup locations from drop off (i.e. from the drop off point to the cable car station, or vice versa), mention that as well. If you don’t, you may find yourself stuck after your visit to the church. Ask your hotel to call a taxi for you, to ensure that you have a reputable driver.
WHERE TO GET THE BEST VIEW OF LAS LAJAS SHRINE
The best thing you can do is Las Lajas is look aroud! The church is suspended across a gorge, with a waterfall next to it, and walls covered in prayer tiles. The region and area are absolutely gorgeous.
On your drive from Ipiales to the taxi drop off post for Las Lajas, you’ll pass a mirador (lookout point) where you can see the church from afar. The lookout is on the right side of the road when driving from Ipiales. Seeing the church nestled in the mountains is beautiful. When you get in your taxi, ask your driver to stop. They will likely know where it is!
After walking down to the church, walk up the stairs facing the church. This will give you a better vantage point to see a broader view of the church and waterfall.
Teleferico de Las Lajas
This cable car can take you in and out of the Las Lajas gorge. Riding the cable car provides a unique viewing perspective, allowing travelers to see the church in its entirety over the gorge.
SAFETY IN IPIALES AND AT LAS LAJAS SANCTUARY
Ipiales is located in the Nariño department, which doesn’t have the best reputation for safety in Colombia. As a frequented tourist attraction, Las Lajas and its small town are safe. Ipiales and Pasto are safe during the day, however at night, you should exercise caution. I recommend taking a taxi when out at night in Ipiales. I didn’t experience any immediate threats of danger while there, however southwestern Colombia is known for having safety issues, and that was definitely evident in Ipiales.
At typically $2-5 USD, taxis in Ipiales and Pasto are relatively inexpensive. Don’t risk it, just take a taxi after dark.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR LAS LAJAS SANCTUARY
If you’re visiting Las Lajas from Colombia, I recommend that you book a hotel for the night. Don’t try to fly back the same day. The drive between Pasto and Ipiales, and flight schedule just don’t really make it realistic.
Hotels in Ipiales are very basic. You’d be hard pressed to find a luxury hotel here. However, hotels in Ipiales are very affordable, typically only charging $25-50 a night. The best hotel in Ipiales is Harmony Hotel. This hotel is located in a central area of the city, and is the most modern, as it’s one of the newest. Some of Harmony Hotel’s best perks were the updated Smart TVs, and reliable WiFi. The hotel also offers a complimentary breakfast.
We struggled with shower issues and very loud noises at Harmony Hotel, however after thoroughly evaluating the hotels in Ipiales and seeing where the other popular options are located, I still feel as though it’s the best choice. Water issues in Ipiales are common across all hotels, so be prepared for the possibility of a cold shower!
Pasto is the more popular option for an overnight stop with travelers continuing into Colombia from Ecuador. Even though Pasto is still unremarkable, it’s more robust than Ipiales. However, if you’re visiting Las Lajas from Colombia or Ecuador, I do recommend staying in Ipiales over Pasto. The drive between the two cities can be well over 2.5 hours.
Las Lajas may not be Colombia’s easiest attraction to visit, however it is certainly one of the best unique things to do in Colombia. Our trip to Las Lajas Sanctuary was absolutely worth the hassle. I can truly say that I’ve never seen another church quite like it.
If you’re planning a Colombia itinerary, click here to discover my guide to the best things to do in Cartagena.
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