Colombian flag waves outside of a home on an empty street.

A canyon of curiosity

Discover miracles in the valleys of Colombia.

Stunning waterfalls. Towering spires. A cathedral of masterful engineering and artistic brilliance nestled in an unlikely place. These wonders bring hundreds of thousands of tourists and faithful people to Las Lajas Sanctuary in southern Colombia, but they aren’t the only draw. Las Lajas Sanctuary has intrigue extending far beyond the shrine’s location and architecture.

Heavenly origins

The history of Las Lajas began with the story of a miracle that has since inspired centuries of pilgrimage and the construction of a shrine millions of people have visited. Legend has it that in 1754 Maria Meneses de Quiñones was caught in a thunderstorm with her daughter, Rosa, who could not hear or speak.

Under a barrage of pouring rain, flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder, the two sought shelter amid the rocky terrain. It’s said that they saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and then Maria’s daughter said, “The Mestiza is calling me.”

At that moment, Rosa’s ailments were inexplicably cured. Following this divine encounter, an image of the Virgin Mary would appear on a nearby stone. The image’s creator remains a question mark in the history books. Some believe the image an instance of divine intervention, while others suggest it’s the work of an earthly, unknown painter. The stone would serve as the location for the first of many shrines, eventually leading to the construction of Las Lajas Sanctuary almost two centuries later.

The current shrine and basilica were built between 1916 and 1944 – a 33-year construction – inside the narrow canyon where the first prodigious event took place, adding breathtaking architecture to the holy site.

No shortage of spectacle

Whether you choose to visit Las Lajas for its religious significance or simply for the beauty of its Gothic Revival-style construction, there’s no denying its appeal.

More than 150 feet above the picturesque Guáitara River, a bridge leads visitors to the sanctuary towers. Remnants of previous shrines can be seen among the canyon walls. Inside, the stained-glass windows are framed by decorative interior structures, including an ornate ceiling that is a work of art itself.

Because of the tropical climate, visitors pass through year-round, and despite its somewhat remote location, Las Lajas is easily accessible by road. If you’ve been wanting to experience South America by way of Colombia, we think that adding Las Lajas to your to-do list will make for an Almighty good time.

Blessed by divinity, built by man

For those more interested in the natural history of Las Lajas than the supernatural, the circumstances of its construction are fascinating. Following the appearance of the image of the Virgin Mary in the rock, several structures were built in its location.

The first was a humble shrine constructed of straw and wood in 1754, the same year as the reported miracle. Over the next 200 years, the shrine would expand to include a brick chapel, artificial waterfall and footbridge. The only thing that would remain constant throughout these years would be the divine image in the canyon wall.

The current church was built clinging to the inner edge of its namesake canyon, giving the appearance of it hanging off a cliff, and its 330-foot-tall structure dwarfs the previous constructions at the site. Designed by Gualberto Perez and Lucindo Espinosa, their impressive feat of structural engineering took over three decades to erect, complete with its vaulted ceiling, spires and buttresses.

Given the construction technology available at the time, this massive undertaking in such a challenging location required some miracles of its own to complete successfully. The resulting structure is responsible for drawing visitors from around the world who seek to gaze upon its ornate beauty in addition to those making a pilgrimage of religious significance.