In the depths of the Zipaquira mountain, nearly 200 meters underground, lies an astonishing attraction: a fully-functioning Catholic Cathedral, carved out of the salt deposits of an abandoned mine. When we discovered the Salt Cathedral is one of only two in the world, we knew we had to hop on the bus for the one-hour journey from Bogota. And we’re so glad we did. The Zipaquira Salt Cathedral proved to be a hauntingly beautiful experience and a highlight of our time in Colombia.
The History of the Salt Cathedral
The indigenous Muisca people were the first to benefit from the salt deposits in the region; the resource transformed the group into one of the most prosperous pre-Hispanic societies of their time. Many years later, the mines were used to finance the campaigns of the liberators Nariño and Bolívar, who brought independence to Colombia 200 years ago.
The salt deposit continued to serve as a valuable mine for hundreds of years. But however prosperous, salt mining is also extremely dangerous. The miners had long dedicated a special place in the mines for their daily prayers. In the 1950s, the salt miners took it a step farther and began to carve their first cathedral into the mine, dedicating it to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners.
Unfortunately, the underground church was constructed too close to the surface and was closed due to structural concerns. The miners went back to work, this time with the support of the government and the Colombian Society of Architects. The elaborate Zipaquira Salt Cathedral we know today was born.
The Stations of the Cross
Upon descending into the Cathedral, visitors first pass through a tunnel that leads to the 13 Stations of the Cross. Each station represents a different part of the crucifixion of Jesus. Some are relief carvings while others have additional salt structures at different heights. All of the cross stations walk through the specific events that took place between Jesus being condemned to being laid in the tomb, and includes a kneeling platform at which to pray.
After the Stations of the Cross, visitors will pass three naves. Each nave has sculptures carved by professionals and miners alike. Connected by a small crack, the three naves represent Jesus’ birth and baptism, life and death and his resurrection.
The main attraction, and arguably the most impressive, is the Cathedral itself.
We got our first glimpse of the cathedral from the balcony above. From here you can see an angelic statue that overlooks the altar, as well as four giant pillars that represent the four gospels. The colossal scale is mind-boggling, as is the fact that 250 thousand tons of rock salt had to be extracted to form the area that is now the cathedral. LED lights illuminate the various salt sculptures, tunnels and the main cathedral. The effect is stunning, if not a bit psychedelic—it’s hardly any wonder why the Sunday service attracts up to 3,000 visitors each week.
Visiting the Cathedral
We took our tour on a Wednesday at noon and found it to be a bit crowded. Understandably, the mine receives 10 thousand foreign tourists and 40 thousand Colombian tourists each month. (Definitely avoid the weekends.) The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday Mass is at 1 p.m.
Tours leave about every 15 minutes from the entrance gate and are available in Spanish and English. The standard tour lasts about one hour. Although you must enter the standard tour with a group, don’t feel as though you must stay with them the entire time. It is easier to get photos and enjoy the stillness of the caves without people bumping and jostling in the often tight spaces.
Tickets for the tour cost 23,000 pesos for adults (13+) and 16,000 pesos for children. For more information about tours visit the Catedral de Sal website.
The Zipaquira Salt Cathedral isn’t for those who get claustrophobic easily, but for all others, a visit to this unique attraction is an absolute must when in Bogota. We thoroughly enjoyed descending underground and marveling at the exquisite sculptures, imagining what it must have been like to be one of the first miners walking the tunnels hundreds of years ago. And in terms of places of worship, this is one mighty exceptional venue.
When you have finished exploring the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral, take some time to wander around the charming town. There are a handful of cafes and shops, as well as a quaint central plaza worth exploring.
Have you visited Zipaquira before? Would you go down under to visit the Salt Cathedral?