A Colombian Must See: Underground Salt Cathedral
Written by Zach Hewke
Colombia is such a wonderful place, so much so, that over the past couple years, I have spent several months there. I just can’t stop going back. Each time I go, I find something more beautiful and unbelievable than the last time. However, if you go, you probably aren’t going to spend a couple months there, so if you go to one place while you are in Colombia, this would have to be one of my top picks:
Salt Cathedral, Zipaquira
About an hour outside of the capital city, Bogota, lies a bustling little city, with an interesting abandoned salt mine, known as the Salt Cathedral. I know what you are thinking, an abandoned salt mine doesn’t sound very intriguing. That is, until you get there and see what it actually is. I’ll be the first to admit, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you enter, you will be amazed.
You will find carved stone crosses that were brought in by hand, and lit like Christmas trees, as you descend into the mine. Each carving is more impressive and beautiful than the last. On top of their beauty, each cross has a different religious meaning and story behind it. I thought that this was incredibly special and was a testament to the deep roots of Catholicism in Colombian culture and society.
Pro Tip: I opted for a tour of the mine, and surprisingly, I found that the tour of the mine was better in English than in Spanish. This is because the English tour is given by a staff member (the site is a Colombian National Park), whereas with the spanish version of the tour, you receive a headset, and guide yourself through the mines.
I often found myself staring in awe at the monuments, as I thought to myself, “How did people bring these stones down here by hand?”, since many of the monuments are carved from stone that isn’t found naturally in salt deposits. The stories behind the monuments, and the history of the mine were intriguing, but they paled in comparison to the cathedral itself, located at the bottom of the mine.
At the bottom of the mine, there are six gargantuan decorative stone pillars, countless other religious artifacts, and the largest crucifix I have ever seen. The crucifix was lit in a way that made it look like God, himself was descending upon the cathedral. The entire scene was breathtaking. You would have never guessed that such an amazing monument was hidden inside a salt mine in the side of a mountain. There are few works made by men that are more captivating than what I saw that day. The cathedral is truly astounding.
As a part of my ticket to the park, there was also a special “Day in the Life of a Miner” tour. After I explored the Cathedral, I then went for this tour. This part of my excursion turned out to be one of the most intriguing parts of it. For this part, our group assembled at a meetup point, and we all put on miner’s hard hats equipped with flashlights.
A guide then leads the group towards the beginning of the exploration. The starting point just so happens to be at the mouth of a roughly two and a half foot wide, six and a quarter foot tall tunnel (not for the claustrophobic among us). My shoulders and hard hat were bumping off of the side and top of the tunnel the entire time, which was less than pleasant, but wasn’t the best part.
The best part was that we were instructed to not turn our flashlights on while navigating the tunnel. It was to be navigated entirely by touch. The tour was conducted in this way to show what a nineteenth century salt miner’s life was truly like on a day to day basis. Believe it or not, it’s not as glamorous as you might think.
We then continued down some larger tunnels in the dark until we got to the mining station. At the mining station, we then got to pick up some pick axes, and mine some salt! This part was very fun, although I’m sure doing it every day might get a little repetitive. We even got to take home the salt that we mined, which was a nice little souvenir. After the mining was done, we then made our way back through the tunnels that we entered through, this time with our lights on.
This tour was incredibly eye opening, it helped put into perspective how great my life really is. Going to the office for eight hours a day, five days a week seems like a walk in the park when you compare it to blindly making your way down narrow tunnels to break your back mining for salt day in and day out.
Overall, the Salt Cathedral is a breathtaking, must see place if you are in Colombia for any length of time. It is a bit off the beaten path, but is 100% worth the trek out there. Not only will you get to see some of the most breathtaking monuments in the country, but you will also learn about Colombian culture at its roots.