It has to count as one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen. A cathedral sitting 180 metres underground in the hollowed-out remains of a vast salt mine that has been in use since pre-Hispanic times. As you make your way underground, ethereal music reverberates throughout the interior of the former salt mine, while mood enhancing lighting illuminates the stations of the cross and huge chambers where the salt was once mined.
Salt and multi-coloured lighting rather than smoke and mirrors?
It is both spectacular and the height of kitsch at the same time. Only in Colombia, you may ponder silently (except there’s an even bigger one in Poland). While services are held in the cathedral, it has no actual status as a cathedral within the Catholic Church – judging by the reverence some people exhibit en route down into the bowels of the salt mine, that doesn’t worry too many people.
The former salt mines are located close to the town of Zipaquira. Once an important Spanish colonial settlement, it still has a beautiful main square flanked by a vast church that could have been transported directly from Spain and which physically dominates the city. The salt itself has been mined since the fifth century BC by the Musica, the indigenous group who inhabited this region. Salt is still being mined today and is used throughout Colombia.
Although Zipaquira sits in a prosperous agricultural valley, the real money earner is the salt cathedral. The cathedral open to the public today is the second cathedral to have been built in the salt mines. The first one started to collapse and had to be abandoned, but public pressure on the mining company to continue the lucrative tourist/pilgrimage trade ensured a second cathedral was constructed – there are trinket shops aplenty in the town should you wish to take home a salty souvenir.
Its easy to reach the salt cathedral, its only an hour if you take a tour or cab from Bogota. We chose to negotiate our way there on public transport and caught Bogota’s version of a metro, the TransMilenio, to somewhere in the north of the city where we were told could get a bus to Zipaquira. Remarkably we managed to get there the same day – actually, it was surprisingly easy to arrange and cost a quarter of the price of a cab.
The cathedral draws hundreds of thousands of tourists/pilgrims every year, but visit on a weekday at the start of the rainy season and there aren’t too many people around to spoil the silence and tranquility of being 180 metres below the earth. It is a peculiar experience all the same. Despite the vast open spaces of the mine, the atmosphere is airless, strangely humid and oppressive.
It is quite a relief to emerge into the sunlight back at the entrance, from where you can stroll down the hill into Zipaquira for a spot of lunch – although not before you pass an array of concession stands and trinket shops just outside the mine.