First, darkness took hold, then came the crushing scent of minerals as I stepped into the structure buried deep in a halite (rock salt) hill. Located two hours north of Bogotá near the small village of Zipaquirá, the Catedral de Sal is built into the tunnels of an old salt mine. Nearly 13 million visitors from around the world have entered, but all I could concentrate on was not hyperventilating.
Did I mention I’m claustrophobic? Deep, dank caves bring on the crawling fingers of fear. I can zipline through the trees hundreds of feet above ground. I’ve even soared 3,000 feet in the air on the tandem hook-up of a hang glider. But the thought of schlepping deep into the core of the Earth nearly brings on a panic attack. Yet here I was, thousands of miles from home, trying to stifle my phobia — and rethinking my decision to travel to Colombia.
“What are you thinking? It’s not safe!” and “You’ll be kidnapped — or worse!” Those were a few of the many admonishments my family and friends offered when I announced my next travel destination was Bogotá. The Colombia tourism board embraces the country’s infamous past as a boiling pot of civil conflict and the drug capital of the world with the bold tagline, “The only risk is wanting to stay.” I was assured of its safety and tempted by its culinary delights, its beauty — from rugged mountain terrain to rich countryside — and this adventurous daytrip to the Salt Cathedral.
A popular tourist destination and a religious mecca to Catholics, the Salt Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Church (although not officially sanctioned), and its spiritual etchings are optical feasts inside a working salt mine. I read the carvings are located in various corridors and sanctuaries and are so inspiring you almost listen for the angels to sing. My inspiration quickly deflated when I read one statistic that made my palms sweat and my heart skip a beat: 200 meters underground. I quickly did the calculations and gulped. That’s more than 656 feet!
Sardined into an old Mazda with four people, the 90-minute drive north through the Andean highlands on the way to the small village of Zipaquirá provided plenty of visual distraction. It’s still primarily an agricultural area where dairy cattle graze and greenhouses produce bundles of cut flowers for the international market, roses and carnations in particular. In fact, Colombia is the second-largest producer of roses and employs more than 250,000 people, mostly women, exporting 80 percent of its flowers to the United States.
Five minutes from the salt mine, we detoured a few blocks onto cobblestone streets and into the main square of Zipaquirá at 8,700 feet above sea level. Shadowed by the hills of Zipa (named for a prominent indigenous chief), the city boasts many preserved buildings with balconies, decorative colonial windows and thick walls of the neocolonial style with Moorish influences.
We left the historic town square and climbed a snaky mountain road to the Salt Cathedral, where hundreds of waving flags on the Plaza del Minero welcomed us. As all entries into the cathedral require a guide (multilingual available), we explored the 79-acre Parque de la Sal. Here visitors tour the Museum of Mining, don hard hats for a real mine tour and climb the Wall Tree, the tallest climbing wall in Colombia. In the center of the park is a metal statue of a miner on a rock salt block.
Entering the mine, I passed under the focal point, the sculpture of the patron saint of miners, the Virgen de Guasá (translated as “salt and water”), with a miner at her feet. The descent was gradual, with a chilly dampness barely assuaged by my jacket. The neon-lit passageway led into the inky blackness of the salt mine tunnel, and I couldn’t help but shiver. Within minutes, a set of lights dramatically uncovered high ceilings and carved rock walls, scarred by clusters of salt, gritty to the touch.
Hundreds of tourists enter these tunnels at one time, and even with the buzz of conversations in multiple languages, the respectful quiet was remarkable. As I slowly descended, the spiritual overture was oddly comforting, and I strained to take in the low murmurs of our guide as he offered fascinating history lessons.
The salt collected here 70 million years ago as the Eastern Mountains were forming and the sea dried out, leaving what is considered the world’s largest salt deposit. The first to prosper from the salt mines were the ancient Muisca indigenous people.
The Spanish later declared it the “City of Whites,” and two centuries ago the prosperity of this salt mine financed the liberating campaigns of Narino and Bolívar and the independence of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Today, the Salt Cathedral and the mine continue to bring prosperity to the community through the constant flow of visitors.
Years before the construction of the underground church, miners carved a sanctuary inside their active mine where they offered daily prayers of protection to their patron saint. Dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, the first Salt Cathedral was built in 1954 at a price of more than $285 million. It featured three naves and a monumental cross, the latter illuminated from the bottom up and projecting a large, cross-shaped shadow onto the ceiling. Part of the galleries also contained carvings by the ancient Muiscas. Unfortunately, structural problems resulted in its 1990 closing.
Miners did not go long without a place to worship. The Industrial Investment Institute, Salinas Concession and the Colombian Society of Architects launched a contest for the design of the new cathedral. Out of 44 proposals, they selected Roswell Garavito Pearl to design the project, with technical engineering under the direction of Bogotan engineer Jorge Enrique Castelblanco Reyes. Construction began in 1991, and the result was an engineering masterpiece which required extracting 250,000 tons of rock salt from a depth of 656 feet.
Inaugurated in 1995, the Salt Cathedral pays homage to Colombia’s predominantly Catholic population; and of its 50,000 annual visitors, 40,000 are Colombian. The only one of its kind in the world, the cathedral’s structure, precise engineering and interesting history earned it the title First Wonder of Colombia in 2007 and a nomination as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
The first glimpse of the 14 Stations of the Cross, leading to the Salt Cathedral, solidifies the amazing architectural design. Retracing the steps of Jesus Christ’s last journey erased any remaining threads of phobia as we were guided through a labyrinth of corridors and sanctuaries.
I became enthralled with stopping at each of the 14 small chapels, taking in the powerfully portrayed scenes located in caves from previous mining operations. Each cross and kneeling platform is carved into the halite. The strategic placement of lights gives the carvings an ethereal illumination, creating a sacred place laced with Biblical symbolism. Moist salt walls, dripping stalactite ceilings and distant echoes of miners chipping away at the salt add to the ambience.
Nothing prepared me for the grand finale, the Salt Cathedral itself, a cylindrical chamber with a smooth domed ceiling. Crossing the chamber, we entered a large tunnel with a distant view of an enormous, illuminated cross. The tunnel led into the cylindrical balcony overlooking the main altar and the church, where weddings and Sunday services are held.
An angel statue blowing a horn heralds the choice facing visitors. Three staircases lead to the main level, but each staircase presents a decision: Sin Pecado (Without Sin), Con Poco de Pecado (With Little Sin) or Con Mucho Pecado (With Much Sin). I didn’t want to risk it, so I chose the third staircase.
Three naves are interconnected by a large crack, symbolic of the birth and death of Christ, and each nave contains sculptures carved by both miners and sculptors. Replicas of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and La Pietà can also be viewed here. The four cylindrical columns represent the Four Evangelists. The magnificence of the white-illuminated cathedral cross, carved into the salt walls and stretching 53 feet high and 32 feet wide, inspires awe.
Our last stops were the exhibit of the first miners, the Muisca people; a reflecting, rectangular-shaped pool of salt water; and, of course, shopping.
All this religious homage culminates in geological irony. My guide told me over time the salt walls will naturally return to their original shape, closing the massive underground cathedral, and Colombians feel this is a fitting demise, as nothing in the world lasts forever.
Info To Go
Flights arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Eldorado (BOG), Bogotá’s only airport. It is an approximately two-hour drive north to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. Other transportation options include the public bus (three hours); or Saturdays, Sundays and holidays ride Bogota’s tourist train, the Tren Turístico de la Sabana. Bogotá is a bustling metropolitan city with many hotels for all budgets.
The Salt Cathedral is open 365 days a year: Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.– 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sunday mass is at 1 p.m. Admission is $9–15, depending on number of attractions. Allow a minimum of one hour for the Salt Cathedral mine tour. English-speaking guides are available at no additional cost.
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