Cape Reinga


At the not quite northernmost point of New Zealand is Cape Reinga, a peninsula on a peninsula, bordered by crashing waves and fantastic cliffs. We arrived early in the morning, not quite early enough for sunrise, but early enough to be one of only four or so people there. At Reinga there is only a little bit of hill climbing to be done, mostly to see a wider view and to get back to the parking lot. The rest can be accomplished at a slow, meditative walk from the entrance out to the lighthouse.


The cape is a holy site for the Maori, who believe it to be where the spirits of the dead fly off the island and continue on to the underworld. New Zealand may have issues with cultural relations, but at least from our visitor’s perspective, the government seems to have done a lot right with the monument at the cape. The original gate and toilets were too close to the cape and local Maori complained. The NZ government moved the gate further out and extended the walkway to what is there today. The signs along the route are as educational as they are plentiful. Each one tells a Maori story or describes the local flora and fauna. The signs are made out of wood and rusted metal, designed to be unobtrusive to the area.


Even the entrance plays a deep and sorrowful wind-ensemble style piece when you walk through it. Initially my impression was that it was slightly corny, but it fits the place and sets the walk to the water off on the right note. For us it changed the experience from simple sightseeing to conscious appreciation of a different culture, and we hope it does the same for others.


When you reach the lighthouse at the literal end of the road, you can see, far off in the distance, a small outcropping with a gnarled tree growing out the side. This is an eight hundred year old pohutukawa tree which, in Maori folklore, the spirits of the dead grab in order to leap into the ocean and continue their journey.


It’s quite a sight to see it growing out there, entirely alone and seemingly unsupported. With the surrounding crystal-blue waves it’s an experience of beauty and contrast, the seemingly eternal cliffs battered by the turbulent waves. On a clear day they say you can see even as far out as a set of small islands off the coast. We saw only hints of their shadows through the fog, and that we may have imagined.


Taking the road back to the main Northland is a continuation in the beauty of nature. Here stand windswept trees to greet you, on hills overlooking rolling green hills stretching out to forever. One the western side of the road, past the grass lies the ocean, on our foggy day a dull gray in contrast to the turquoise to the north. The road is long and mostly lonely, but well worth the drive out and back.

A small cluster of trees by the road. Together they hold fast against the wind.
A view across the rolling hills, each one further obscured by fog.
A view of an outcropping to the west, the edge of a beach visible to the left.
Sand encroaches on grass where they meet at the ocean’s edge. The sheep seem unconcerned.

Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional

Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional

If there’s one thing that South American cities have an abundance of, it’s religious landmarks and Quito is no exception, boasting several churches and cathedrals. The Basílica del Voto Nacional is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas, with stained glass and altars to more than a dozen holy figures and saints. Entry into the cathedral is $1, and you can buy candles for prayers to the saints from vendors outside.

Once inside, the first striking thing is how dark and quiet the cathedral is. The stones muffle the sounds of traffic outside and most light passes though immense stained-glass windows, dimming it to near nothingness.

Stained glass from the inside.

Some windows are patterned, while others depict Bible scenes or saints. Some have been damaged and replaced with whatever was handy at the time—one saint now has a torso of abstract art:

Scenes from the Bible in stained glass
Repaired stained glass windows showing more abstract designs.

Then there are the saints’ altars lining the walls of the cathedral:

The altar for the crucifiction of Jesus.
The altar for the child Mary.
Saint Miguel, patron saint of education.

The crypt lies at one end of the Basilica, with large marble tombs adorned by bronze statues, dedicative plaques, and fresh flowers:

A statue in the crypt to Father Julio Maria Matovelle.
A cross on a wall with bricks bearing people’s names. For many years construction of the church was funded by laying bricks with donors’ names.

Ipiales/Las Lajas

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.

A statue on the streets of Ipiales.

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.

A house in Ipiales

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.

The main square of Ipiales.

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.

A boy carries the infant Jesus to the Nativity in the church.
The marching band procession for the Nativity in Ipiales.

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 church nativity scene in Ipiales.

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.

A view from the road to Las Lajas.

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.”

Plaques giving thanks for miracles at Las Lajas.

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 first view of Las Lajas.

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.

Crowds for Mass on Christmas Day at Las Lajas.

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.

People light candles at an altar in Las Lajas.

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.

People douse themselves with holy water dispensed from a cherubic statue.

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.

The view of Las Lajas from above.

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.