Low salt

The Salt Cathedral is built into the walls of a working salt mine nearly 600 feet into a mountain of Zipaquira, a town of 120,000 habitants just north of Bogota, Colombia. Intri- cate lighting bathes the featured attractions. JAVIER GALEANO / AP
The Salt Cathedral is built into the walls of a working salt mine nearly 600 feet into a mountain of Zipaquira, a town of 120,000 habitants just north of Bogota, Colombia. Intri- cate lighting bathes the featured attractions. JAVIER GALEANO / AP

A tour of the underground Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira in Colombia is seasoned with crystalline sculptures and a cool light show.

Posted: March 17, 2014

BOGOTA, Colombia - As a globe-trotting adult, I've tended to err on the side of caution and have learned to approach overly novel attractions with a great deal of hesitation.

Such was the case on a recent visit to Bogota, Colombia, when against all restraint I kept thumbing back to a dog-eared page in the guidebook referencing a so-called Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, situated in an underground salt mine about 30 miles north of the capital. To prompt myself into finally hazarding Bogota's paralytic traffic so as to discover if the cathedral was worth its salt as a destination, I first had to channel a bit of Clark Griswold, goading his kids into the family car to make time to see the world's second-largest ball of twine as they made their way to Wally World.

Though not an official cathedral - it doesn't seat an ordained bishop - the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira is indeed attached to a working salt mine and serves as a functioning church, drawing several thousand worshipers each Sunday.

As it turns out, the crystalline place of worship-slash-tourist trap is actually rather interesting.

Situated 8,700 feet above sea level, the vast halite deposits underlying these mountains are the remnants of a Triassic ocean that evaporated 250 million years ago. It is said that rock salt has been mined at this site by pre-Columbian peoples as far back as the fifth century B.C., with the glistening white commodity then traded for such things as gold, emeralds, cotton, and fish.

Modern-day miners share the same patron saint (Barbara) with artillerymen and others who confront the dangers of sudden and violent death at work. People engaged in extractive industries the world over are known to construct religious temples, shrines, and altars in and around their mines; however, in 1932 the workers at Zipaquira began taking the idea of a holy sanctuary to an entirely different level.

What began as a simple chapel had grown into a sprawling cathedral two decades later. When the ad hoc design of the original edifice began to develop cracks and other structural problems it was closed by authorities in 1990. A new and structurally sound facility designed by a leading Colombian architect was then blasted out of a quarter of a million tons of rock salt 200 feet beneath the old one.

Given its location, the Salt Cathedral is obviously bereft of any spires soaring into the perpetually overcast skies blanketing the Cordillera Oriental. Absent too are stained-glass masterpieces as one would find at Chartres, elaborately decorated Gothic doorways like those of Seville, Spain, or a towering gilded dome as at St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Descending into the complex, one has the impression of entering a show cave rather than a place of worship. Furthermore, as the nostrils acclimate to a pervasive odor of brimstone, the feeling is more of approaching the threshold of the underworld than of entering a Christian cathedral.

At 57 degrees Fahrenheit, it is neither exceedingly hot nor cold inside. Unlike a cave or mine shaft, the cathedral is so vast, its chambers so expansive, that none but the most severely claustrophobic will be deterred from venturing in. Devoid of snakes, bats, and insects, the only caveat from an environmental standpoint would be to wear slip-resistant shoes.

At the start of the tour, a guide recommends that visitors hold off on taking photographs on account of naturally occurring battery-draining positive ions that are said to afflict the mine. Whatever the case, unless one has superior camera equipment the photos one might undertake within the Salt Cathedral will be inadequate. And the advice, factual or not, is constructive, as the initial sections of the tour, consisting of 14 individual chapels dedicated to the Stations of the Cross, are fairly tedious.

Given that the air is not conducive to metals or wood, most of the religious iconography and structures have been carved out of salt. Though some visitors are more than willing to tongue the cathedral walls like cattle at a colossal salt lick, my preference was to step back and marvel at the unique rock forms, made all the more outstanding through colored accent lighting.

It's the lighting that justifies a great portion of the cost of admission (about $9). The $2.4 million system is reportedly the same as that which illuminates the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower. Designed to withstand the effects of static electricity and corrosion, the system can reportedly produce more than 1.5 million colors.

One overhyped aspect of the system is a 1,300-square-foot LED screen, said to be Latin America's largest, mounted to the ceiling in a cavernous chamber located at the lowest level of the cathedral and giving a thankfully brief but satisfactory (and nonreligious-themed) light show.

But it's the intricate lighting that bathes the feature attractions, such as the floor-sculpture interpretation of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam and other wall carvings, statuary, and dizzying salt formations, that generates the most oohs and aahs, and eventually propels the Salt Cathedral over the threshold of cool.

The centerpiece is a rectangular main altar room, its lofty walls and ceilings a swirl cake of roiling rock strata suffused in ever-changing light. Rows of pews face a 52-foot-high glowing cross - a behemoth that gives the impression of being impossibly suspended.

I was visiting purely out of touristic curiosity, not for any purposes of self-inquiry or spirituality; such deliberation would have been near impossible amid the commotion of sightseers and local students clamoring down chiseled, rough-hewn stairs and flooding into the altar room.  

Another visual trick, among the last stops on the tour, is a brine-filled pool of water that appears as a crystalline clear 20-foot-deep flooded cavern; however, when one gently blows upon its placid surface, ripples radiate across the water, showing it to be a mere four inches in depth.

Zipaquira itself is a charming little community with colonial architecture and a broad central plaza in which to take a post-cathedral stroll and to allow the eyes to readjust to life aboveground. It also offers the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants, serving the traditional Colombian bandeja paisa meat plate with fried egg and plantain so one can energize oneself for the traffic jam upon the return to Bogota.

Perhaps it was merely a consequence of the supposed mood-enhancing negative ions emitted within the mine but, as a traveler suspicious of novel attractions, the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira secured my go-ahead as a worthwhile day trip out of Bogota - a recommendation that, should one find himself visiting Colombia, need not be taken with a grain of salt.

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