Getting Religious At The Border: Las Lajas, Colombia

“Solo sesenta días señorita!” the Colombia DAS official asserts, refusing my request for a 90-day stay. He stamps my passport and shoves it out of the half circle cut into the glass, waving the next in line to come forward.

Damnit. That means I’ll have to make the trip to DAS four times this year, kind of like having two menstrual cycles a month. After standing in line an excruciating amount of time at the understaffed Ecuador checkpoint, then trudging through the rain to the Colombia side, dodging money changers and taxis plowing through the streets playing chicken with pedestrians, this is not the news I was looking for.

My mood darkens like the cloudy sky above as I go through the currency trading process and change my dollars to pesos. Eek. The rate is fair and the bills are real, but I know I’ll be spending them quickly with the drastic change in the price of transport between the two countries (Colombia’s bus system is 2.5 to 3 times more expensive than Ecuador’s).

Debating what to do, an older, unassuming taxi driver strolls over to us, offering his services. My partner mentions that we’re interested in going to Las Lajas. The driver begins to rave over the church, calling it one of the great wonders of the world and emphasizing how it receives visitors from every corner of the globe. He begins to list all of the countries he can think of to prove his point.

Convinced, my partner looks at me, eyes pleading. The driver insists that there is internet in the town and everything else we could ever need or want. I’m skeptical, but I have no energy to protest. He leads us to an unmarked, unlicensed car and asks my partner to sit up front so we don’t get stopped by police. Oh hell no. I hesitate, but Giovanny nods decisively.

I climb into the backseat, brooding, while we sputter along the carretera and the chipper two up front make small talk. The 20+-year-old car burps out a continuous cloud of black smoke from its tailpipe so offensive that I elect the Bogotá style of tying a scarf around my neck and mouth to filter the ingestion of pollution.

The old man pulls over to the side of the road, announcing we had arrived at the mirador. I grudgingly get out of the car and take a peek over the ledge.

Las Lajas Colombia
by apgwhite on Flickr

The radiance of the church set in the midst of the steamy mountains immediately brightens my mood. I smile, breathing in the clean air of the town, and admire the view for a bit longer.

Giovanny glances at me, looking to see if I am still irritable . I smile at him and reassure that, “Todo bien.

After arriving at the parking lot, the driver gets out to help us with our luggage. He promised us that there was cheap accommodation to be found in Las Lajas, and in order to maintain his guarantee, he walks us to a nearby hotel. He takes a look at our room, ensuring all is in order, and bargains 5000 pesos off the price on our behalf.

I think of the dodgy reputation that most taxi drivers have around the world (and that many earn). Amused, I smile to myself, take a deep breath, and relax.

I’m in Colombia.

The stunning green mountains play peek-a-boo in the open gaps between shops selling rosaries, candles, purses, and scarves. We pass a pair of apathetic llamas resting on the asphalt, stylishly dressed in sparkly top hats and sequined saddles. Their handler tries to entice us with a photo opportunity. I’m tempted, but I feel like strapping on one of the cowboy hats the lamas have tied to their saddles for visitors and wrapping my arms around their necks like we’re old high school buddies would be insulting.

Strolling through the maze of the town and down the winding path to the church, the grandness of the place hits me as soon as it comes into full view. Though not of the Christian variety, I feel so overwhelmed by the energy that I almost cross myself.

We stand on the bridge, varying between admiring the architectural miracle and staring into the brown river, each lost in our own thoughts. I soak in the magnificence of the cathedral and her surroundings, wondering what kind of blood, sweat, years, and dedication went into its construction.

I could spend all day on these magnetic grounds, but Popayan is far and we have to get going.

Las Lajas Colombia
by aniara on Flickr

The Logistics

  • An unlicensed taxi ride from the border to Las Lajas costs 13,000 pesos (bargained down from 15,000).
  • A taxi directly to Ipiales should cost you 6000 pesos or take a bus for 1500.
  • Money changers at the border offer a fair rate; be sure to check all the bills and do the math on your own calculator before exchanging money.
  • There are several hotels around the parking lot at the end of Las Lajas. We found a room at Hotel Danny for 15,000 pesos (though the usual price is 25,000 pesos a night). They should all come with cable television and hot water.
  • There are two internet cafes in town. The one located in front of the parking lot charges 1200 pesos/hour, though speed is reminiscent of the dial-up era.
  • Photographers are waiting to snap your photo in front of Las Lajas for a price of 5000 pesos which is printed on the spot. Price can be bargained down to 4000.
  • Returning to Ipiales, a taxi collective will cost you 2000 pesos. Cars don’t leave until they’re full, and they drop off in the center of Ipiales or at the terminal.
  • Las Lajas is freezing at night! This is not the town to walk around in your flip-flops and board shorts.
  • You must remove head coverings to enter the church.

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