10th -11th January
After saying goodbye to our friend and her family in Popayan, we head towards the city of Pasto, a long but amazingly scenic 245km five hour drive through impossibly green steep and jagged mountains with vertical drops to the sides. We had been warned that the road is said to be one of the most dangerous in Colombia owing to a high level of guerrilla activity in the surrounding mountains. It also has a high incidence of buses and cars robbed at night so driving this route after dark would not be wise…
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Arriving in Pasto at the foot of the Galeras volcano in the Atriz valley quite late, we check in to the hotel we had planned on staying in, where we just manage to fit into their parking area. Of course, it is never that simple, we can’t find the hotel and end up having to ask a variety of people for directions. Trying to translate Spanish whilst being tired and a little stressed is not a good combination! Hours later, we can finally relax for the day!
Walking out from the hotel in the evening for dinner, the streets are bustling with people, we see a small but busy restaurant/cafe and order some grilled meat with potatoes and veg which is served on a huge wooden chopping board.
We start the drive early towards the Ecuadorian border, again going through some fantastic scenery. Whilst admiring the view, we meet a German overlander, Holger, riding a diesel powered motorbike!!
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It takes around a couple of hours to get to the Las Lajas Sanctuary, where we bump into Dan and Liene of Zanzando, fellow 4×4 overlanders who are travelling up to Alaska, and explore the grand basilica church with them.
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The sanctuary is a spectacular site, amazingly built on a stone bridge within a deep gorge of the Guaitara river, 100 metres high from the bottom of the canon to the top. The bridge which connects it to the other side is even 50m in length!
The legend behind why the church was built in such a precarious yet beautiful location goes back to the mid 18th century whereby a mother and deaf daughter seek shelter in the gorge from a storm. The young girl sees an image of the Virgin Mary on the rocks and is cured. Shortly after, an old blind man had travelled from one village to the next collecting money to build a chapel around the image, and on return to Las Lajas, his eyesight is restored.
These miracles inspired the building of the present church which was built from 1916 to 1949 in Gothic Revival style, making it look like it could have been built centuries before and almost entirely from the donations of churchgoers, replacing the original shrine.
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The church is a place of pilgrimage to many Colombians but being a Monday morning, there are relatively few people around, adding to the air of mystery surrounding it.
The sanctuary looks more like a fairy tale castle than a place of worship, although mass is taking place as we arrive, the altar is the canyon’s rock and the church is literally built into it.
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We walk around the side to the waterfall passing a collection of plaques on the cliff wall left by pilgrims as thanks for spiritual experiences and miracles they had attributed to the Virgin Mary’s presence and down to the small museum at the bottom of the sanctuary.
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Later we take a walk through the small touristy town of small souvenir stalls selling religious memorabilia and a string of little restaurants all advertising the local delicacy of guinea pig or cuy along with llama photo taking opportunities!
Walking out for dinner at night, it’s freezing, we are an altitude of 2950metres and everyone around us are covered up in ponchos!
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Colombia has been a fantastic country to travel in, with friendly people everywhere, always ready to help us out when needed, and surprisingly, it felt much safer there than in some of the countries we had been to in Central America!
In the morning, we cross over the border and into Ecuador!