History and legend of the sanctuary basilica of Las Lajas, Colombia

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Las Lajas is a Catholic church built in 1754 and rebuilt several times since then. It is located on the Guáitara River, 7 km southeast of the Ipiales region of Colombia . The basilica stands where, according to legend, the Virgin Mary made an appearance to an indigenous woman and her deaf-mute daughter, curing the latter of her condition, and after her death miraculously bringing her back to life. . Colombian architect Lucindo Espinosa and Ecuadorian engineer J. Gualberto Pérez built the modern structure between 1916 and 1949, and it included the monumental bridge that connects the two sides of the Guáitara Canyon. 

Content:

  • Histoire de las Lajas: miracle of María Mueses de Quiñones
  • architectural history
  • Historical context of María Mueses: the Viceroyalty of New Granada
  • Cultural significance of the legend of Las Lajas
  • How to get to Las Lajas
  • Las Lajas Museum (+ entrance fee)
  • Travel Tips
Sanctuary of Las Lajas

The site of the basilica tells a story dear to South American Catholics. This tale has significant historical and cultural significance, so even if you don’t follow Catholicism, it’s worth looking into as it marks an important historical context in colonial South America.

The story goes that in 1754, María Mueses de Quiñones, a Native American woman, was walking through the canyon on her way to Ipiales when a violent storm caught her and she had to take refuge in a nearby cave. Aware of the stories told by the inhabitants of the devil’s appearances in this region, she prayed to the Virgin Mary. From behind, a hand touched her shoulder, and she turned around in terror, but saw nothing. Frightened, she left the cave in the pouring rain.

A few days later, on September 16, 1754, María Mueses once again traveled the canyon with her daughter Rosa, deaf and mute from birth. They got caught in another storm, and then Rosa spoke. She said to her mother « the mestizo is calling me ». María Mueses rushed to her daughter, who spoke for the first time, and saw the mestiza she was pointing at. On one of the lajas, the large sedimentary rocks that shelter the river, stood the Virgin Mary.

María Mueses told what happened, but no one believed her, but when Rosa died at a young age, María Mueses returned with Rosa’s corpse to the place where the Virgin Mary had appeared to them and had prayed for his soul, and here Rosa was miraculously brought back to life. From then on, the place became an important place of pilgrimage for Catholics, with four temples built over the years, and in 1952 the Vatican gave it a canonical coronation.

Architectural history

Las Lajas Sanctuary is not only famous for its religious significance, but also for its architectural beauty. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful church in South America, and it is praised for the harshness of its location.

The first record of a shrine built at the place of the apparition is in the diary of the Spanish Franciscan friar Juan de Santa Gertrudis, who traveled in South America between 1756 and 1764, and it was a simple hut apparently built by Friar Gabriel Villafuerte from straw and wood.

The sources are varied on the dates of construction of the second temple. Some say it was built between 1769 and 1776 by the priest Eusebio Mejía y Navarro. This second structure used brick and was topped with a dome. Others say it was built in 1802.

The construction of the third temple took place between 1859 and 1893, and it was led by Father José María Burbano España y Lara and the architect Mariano Aulestía. This temple lost the dome but had a larger size and two small towers on the sides of a small building that stood above the main block.

The fourth and last construction took place from 1916 to 1949. The work was entrusted to the Ecuadorian engineer J. Gualberto Pérez and the Colombian architect Lucindo Espinosa, who made a formidable neo-Gothic style structure in gray stone and white. The current church is 100 meters from the surface of the river to the top, 27.5 meters long and 15 meters wide, and the bridge that precedes it, joining the two sides of the canyon, is 20 meters long and 17 wide. wide, and yet there are statues of angels adorning it all along.

Architect Lucindo Espinosa, born in Pasto, a few miles north of Ipiales, was a self-taught professional who had received no formal education or training in calculus or architecture. He died four years before the end of las Lajas. On the walls of the church today you can find engravings with quotes from Espinosa, one of which says « If you are looking for the monument, look around you », expressing his admiration for the natural site where las Lajas is built, which it is believed was chosen by the Virgin Mary for this reason.

Historical context of María Mueses: the Viceroyalty of New Granada

The 18th century in Latin America was not heavenly for the natives, but new ideas had recently begun to enter the region that would eventually end colonial rule. The Spaniards had been there since 1492, and the Portuguese almost as long. Latin America served as a backyard for the European crowns to improve their economies, although many, mainly the Spaniards, mishandled the situation and the wealth they derived from their colonies ended up in other parts of the world.

In 1717, the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Spanish: Virreinato de la Nueva Granada) had been founded, uniting the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama under Spanish rule. The capital of the viceroyalty was the city of Bogota, capital of modern Colombia. The Spanish Crown created it in order to maximize their control over the region, which was of paramount importance for the Spaniards to continue to benefit from gold production in South America, and its strategic position allowed them to fight against piracy.

The viceroys brought to South America the ideologies of the Enlightenment, which are now beginning to be predominant in Europe. These aristocrats put forward various policies aimed at Bourbon reform and the modernization of the administrative, productive and commercial institutions of the viceroyalty. Some notable examples are the opening of the first public library in Bogota by Viceroy Manuel Guirior and the establishment of the Free Market, which revived commercial activity between South American ports.

Under Spanish colonial rule, from times before the Viceroyalty, indigenous peoples of South America were enslaved and forced to work in the gold and silver mines and the potato harvests, maize and tobacco to export to Europe and to negotiate with it. There are also various Catholic missionary expeditions, and slaves are forced by the lords to attend masses.

Viceroyalties were outside sources who worked for the Spanish crown and whose main purpose was to collect goods for Spain. But these libertarian Enlightenment ideas also instilled in the native the seed that would eventually inspire figures like Simón Bolivar and José de San Martín to launch liberation movements.

Cultural significance of the legend of Las Lajas

The story of María Mueses de Quiñones is a mark of the defeat of pre-Hispanic religion against Catholic imposition. It marks, alongside other similar stories, how the Native Americans themselves began to desire to adopt the religion of the conquerors, which many were forced to practice. María Mueses lives in a society tired of excessive taxation and forced labor, accustomed to humiliation and submission. Catholicism was widely adopted by Native Americans, but it is still under the control of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore treats Native Americans as what they are to the Crown, slaves.

The daughter of María Mueses de Quiñones describes the Virgin Mary as “mestizo”. This word means mestizo and refers to those who are born to a Spanish parent and a Native American parent. The appearance of the Virgin Mary to an indigenous woman occurs when the Catholic god gradually replaces the indigenous gods that the peoples of South America believed in before the arrival of the Spaniards.

According to Wolf (1958), who writes about the Virgin of Guadalupe, another appearance of a mestizo Mary in Mexico, the representation of the Catholic saint as a mestizo symbolizes the integration of Native Americans into Catholic culture.

This church, as a Mexican monument, symbolizes the radical change in beliefs that Native Americans underwent for Spanish missionary activity and colonial rule, and commemorates one of the major steps towards the full adoption of Catholicism in this region of ‘Latin America. This change, however, is only interesting in the religious sphere, and not in the political sphere, as evidenced by libertarian figures such as Simón Bolivar, who led one of the greatest wars of independence.

sanctuary of las lajas

How to get to Las Lajas

For readers who wish to visit the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de las Lajas, here is the main information you will need. Colombia’s only international airport is Bogotá Airport. If you are traveling by plane from any other country, this is where your journey will begin. Depending on the time of year, you can then fly from Bogotá to Ipiales for around $300 in just over 3 hours, or you can fly to Pasto and then take a mini-bus for $250.

From Ipiales you will have to go to the terminal and take a bus to the sanctuary of las Lajas. The cost is 3000 pesos, and the trip takes about 15 minutes, and you will be ready to explore this amazing and breathtaking construction. Admission to the church itself is free, but for the museum you will have to pay an additional 3000 pesos, but that’s less than a US dollar.

For those feeling more adventurous and have a few dollars to burn, there is a cable car installed from Ipiales to the sanctuary. The cost is 6000 Pesos (1.63 US$), and from there you have to walk a kilometer, but you can also take a taxi for 9000 Pesos (2.45 US$).

Las Lajas Museum

Beneath the main church building, below the height of the bridge, las Lajas has a museum that houses everything from church paintings to gadgets from pre-Hispanic indigenous cultures. This area of ​​the Guáitara Canyon was controlled by the Tribe de los Pastos before the arrival of the Spaniards, and this museum would be built over an indigenous cemetery.

In the museum you can find paintings and images of the different stages of the construction of the fourth temple, as well as various glass windows with images of Jesus and saints and objects belonging to the pastos such as pots and vases. The cost of entry is 3000 Colombian pesos, around US$0.80.

Travel Tips

The department of Nariño, where Ipiales and the Las Lajas sanctuary are located, is quite cold. Because it is in the tropics, it has a constant average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius throughout the year. Be sure to take warm clothes and maybe scarves and gloves.

The terrain can be rough and uneven, especially through the paths around the church. There are also various stairs, especially for the museum, so it would be better to take comfortable clothes rather than high hills or office clothes.