The town of Ipiales is located in southern Colombia and serves as a rest point for travelers between Colombia and Ecuador. At the elevation of nearly 3000 m, the air is already thinner here and you’ll find yourself heaving as you climb through the hilly streets.
Unlike Cartagena or Medellín, Ipiales isn’t a tourist town. It looks more run down, there are no glitzy lights, and there isn’t a party street lined with bars. The houses on the streets look more modest, though they’re still decorated with symbols and bright colors. We don’t encounter a single backpacker here besides ourselves, and there are no hostels, so we stay in a cheap hotel. When we walk along the street, people don’t try to hawk goods to us, although they sometimes stop and stare out of curiosity.
We’re only here for the day, so we walk to the town square and see what’s happening. It’s just after midday on December 24 and the area is full of people buying last minute gifts from the dozen or so stalls that line the square. Some sell stationary and shirts with the Frozen characters on them, others sell cheap jewelry, and others sell food and drink gift baskets. We stop for tamales at one of the food carts, then sit and watch the people bustle by. Several older men are congregating nearby, visibly drunk and laughing and shoving each other. They’ve lined up several empty vodka bottles along a wall and take swigs from the only non-empty bottle remaining.
As the sun dips lower, we notice several people gathered in one corner of the square and wander over to find a procession for the Nativity. Surrounded by priests and trailed by a whole high-school marching band, one young boy carries a plastic infant Jesus. He solemnly marches the street around the square, and then enters the church to deposit Jesus into the manger.
We watch the people file in to pay their respects, and when most have come and gone we enter. Despite the modest houses and buildings in the square, the inside of the church is beautifully decorated. The Nativity scene is sprawled in one corner, a mixed media display of goods and lights, while a statue of Jesus holds up an extension cord that doubles as a barrier around the spectacle. We pay a version of respects and then head back to the hotel for the night.
The next day is Christmas Day, and we’re up early and bound for arguably the only tourist attraction in the area: the cathedral of Las Lajas. We find taxi drivers in the central square of town and hire one out to the cathedral. One of the nice features of Ipiales is that there are fixed rates to everywhere, including Las Lajas and the border with Ecuador—no negotiations are needed, although you’re welcome to try.
As we speed along the narrow roads out of town, we ask about the area. We expect that given the apparent lack of wealth in the area, the taxi driver will be pessimistic, but we’re pleasantly surprised. “Things are good,” he tells us, “and getting better. There are lots of jobs [for everyone].” We ask about the primary industry in the area, and he says much of the region is dedicated to growing temperate crops such as potatoes and wheat, which the trade with the more tropical northern provinces for bananas and rice. “But there’s almost no tourism here,” he tells us, “If it weren’t for Las Lajas, we would be entirely forgotten.”
When we arrive at Las Lajas. There’s no sign of a cathedral, but there’s a narrow sloped road down a hill packed with shopkeepers and restauranteurs, selling everything from candles and rosaries to fried nuts and cuy (roasted guinea pig). This is the first place we’ve seen cuy, so I’m tempted to try it but Stoytcho is less than enthusiastic. We continue walking down the street, stopping once to purchase a few multicolored candles at one of the vendors for 3000 pesos. The street vendors eventually give way to walls crowded with thousands of plaques, each giving thanks for a miracle from the church and the Virgin of Las Lajas. Finally, near the base of the hill, Las Lajas breaks into view, towering steeples and buttresses suspended hundreds of feet above the Guáitara River gorge.
The area is thronged with crowds, the cathedral inhaling and exhaling waves of people every few minutes as sessions of Christmas Mass are repeated over and over. The people spill out from the cathedral doors and spread out along the promenade, posing for family portraits taken by wandering photographers for hire, lining up to sprinkle themselves with holy water, and bringing candles to an outdoor altar for lighting.
We join the mass of people gathered at the altar and hand over our candles to be lit. I’ve never been religious, and I’m at a loss of what to do after I hand my candle over. The best I can guess is that I’m supposed to make a wish or prayer with the lighting of a candle, a bit like a birthday but less selfish, so I do that.
Out past the candle altar, people are lining up to douse themselves with water dispensed by a cherubic statue. They collect it in their hands, then spill it over their hair and wipe it on their faces. One man fills an empty water bottle.
We finish walking around the cathedral and then head up to a nearby hill to get a view of the valley. It’s hotter now, and popsicle vendors have sprouted up on the path, selling bright red gelatins and coconut milk pops. Children play along the path as parents try to corral them for family photos with Las Lajas in the background. The photographers-for-hire waltz between them, taking photos and then guiding the families down the hill to a small outcrop where they take turns printing the photos on a few printers. One photographer asks us, on behalf of a shy family, if we would stand with them in their photo. We happily agree, and we’re immortalized, a giant man and a vaguely ethnic woman, standing surrounded by a Colombian family. They thank us, and they’re gone before we even think to ask for a copy.
When we finally reach the top of the hill, we look back over the valley. It’s nearly noon, and the throngs of people have dissipated, but small groups still trickle through. The cathedral’s structure dwarfs all of them, like schools of colorful fish darting through a massive reef. According to the stories, people first started coming here because it was the site of a miracle, where the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman and her daughter. The first shrines were built of hay and wood, and the cathedral, funded by local donations, wasn’t completed until 1949. It’s a true communal project, one without famous architects or multinational construction firms. Just people who came together and wanted to make something bigger than themselves.