Right on the border with Ecuador, Ipiales is one of the first towns you’ll get to if entering Colombia via bus. If no buses are around, a taxi from the border office into town should cost no more than 12,000 pesos (£3). The town itself is a little run down, a little dull and a little quiet, but it’s a great place to get your first dose of real local life in Colombia. The main plaza has a certain charm about it that we didn’t find in any of the bigger cities, and you can be sure that nothing you see is being put on for tourists in Ipiales because there basically aren’t any. What put the town on the map is the most famous Colombian church, El Santuario de las Lajas, so let’s get down to that.
Things to do in Ipiales
There’s not a huuuuuge list of things to do in Ipiales; in fact, there’s basically just one thing. The main draw of this small town is El Santuario de Las Lajas, the ‘put-us-on-the-map Ipiales church’. An insane grey-bricked church built into the valley to commemorate a miracle in the 1700s. The miracle itself seems a little contrived – a young deaf-mute girl was walking through the valley with her mother and suddenly exclaimed that she heard a voice thought to be the Virgin Mary – but we’re glad that things escalated the way they did as it resulted in the most beautiful Colombian church we’ve seen during 7 months in this country.
You can opt to see Santuario de Las Lajas from the air, by taking the cable car (‘teleférico’) that crosses the canyon twice. The Las Lajas teleférico runs until 7pm on weekdays and 8pm otherwise, so if you can we would aim to go see the details of the most famous Colombian church on foot just before sunset, then jump on the teleférico once darkness sets and they on turn the ever-so-slightly-tacky-but-very-colourful lights of Las Lajas. The 18 minute ride costs 10K COP (£2.50) on weekdays and up to 15K COP on weekends and holidays.
A word of warning though, do not visit El Santuario de Las Lajas on religious holidays. On any other day the place seems more on less empty, but we went on Easter Sunday and could barely move for all the locals coming to pray. We couldn’t even see inside the church as the people there for Mass were spread out the doors and onto the bridge. The outside was good enough though – if we still had a living room, this Colombian church is the colour we would paint it.
How to get to El Santuario de Las Lajas, the most striking Colombian church
From Ipiales, you’ll need to take a taxi as it’s a 10-minute drive outside of the town. On the way back, we found it cheaper to go with one of the many colectivo cars parked outside (alongside a family of 5 crammed into the back), though these may not be there on non-holidays with fewer people. Either way, you’ll pay only a couple of pounds each way in a private taxi.
Note that there is a long, steep hill between where the taxis can drop you off/pick you up and the church itself. Can’t expect a blessin’ without a little effort! If you’re injured and/or old, bring any walking aids you have and factor in some extra time for regular breaks.
Where to stay in Ipiales
Because of its lack of tourism (for now!), finding a hostel in near the Ipiales church – or in Ipiales at all – may be a little tricky. For that reason, we chose to find an apartment called Mansion Blanca in the outskirts of town, which was humble but perfect for us for the two nights we stayed. The young owner, William, was fantastic, and picked us up from the centre, drove us to find a cash point and then delivered us to the door of the accommodation.
Where to eat in Ipiales
For a snack, you’ll find excellent papas rellenas on the corner of Calle 10 and Carrera 6, but for something more substantial we recommend visiting Ricky Hamburger at no.54 Carrera 3. This place does amazing burgers grilled on a hotplate outside with true local vibes inside (in truth it was a bit uncomfortable being stared at so much when we first sat down, but they got used to us).
Recommended time to stay in to visit the world-famous Ipiales church: 1 full day
And if you love beautiful Colombian church architecture, you may also enjoy Mompóx.
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