The taxi driver mumbles “down there” in short quick Spanish while pointing down the hill and looking at my hand holding his fare. I place the 10,000 peso bill in his hand, toss my camera bag over my shoulder before heading down to what many say is South America‘s most beautifully hidden treasure: The Las Lajas Sanctuary.
My knees weaken as they pace the steep sidewalk down into the valley. My ears are filled with chants from vendors selling candles, pictures of the virgin, and buckets to fill with holy water. It’s a Sunday morning and the path is filled with families, church goers and a combination of indigenous men and sisters of the Catholic Church.
Then just below me, like a beautiful seashell poking out of the sand, the cathedral presents itself. Las Lajas, doesn’t appear South American. In fact, it hardly appears to be a church. It is a castle hanging over the valley and one of the most beautiful sights on the continent.
As I walk across the bridge, I look back across the valley at the beautiful cathedral and wonder how many people can miss this place. Sure, the south of Colombia doesn’t have the best reputation for safety, nor does it hold all too many more gems waiting for the tourist crowd. The majority of tourists to the region scamper through Ipiales as quickly as possible using the town as a base for crossing the border with Ecuador, nothing more. Most that pass through this town have no idea Las Lajas Cathedral even exists; it’s such a shame.
After taking far too many pictures I cross the bridge back to the sanctuary and notice that a sermon is being read. I enter the enormous doors and think to myself how proud my mom would be if she heard I was attending Sunday service. The walls are lined with intricate gold work that connects within the hinges of the rounded ceiling. Beautiful chandeliers hang offering an ambient light to the religious mood of the scene below them. I smirk, look down at my feet and turn to make my exit.
As I climb the hill to leave and an old man makes his way along side me. He wears a traditional hat, an armless poncho, and pushes his way up the slope with a wooden stick. It’s hard not to wonder where I am in this moment. Indigenous South American men, nuns from the church, and a cathedral posing as a European castle. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter where I am, it’s the experience, the feeling, the mood that hinges to the soul more than the destination itself. It is the feeling that you’ll remember long after the photos of the destination are lost in the back of your hard drive or the archives of an average travel blog.