One of the most popular day-trips from the Colombian capital Bogotá is a visit to the town of Zipaquirá, about 50km north of the city. Zipaquirá itself is nothing special, but just outside town, at the edge of the suburbs, is one of the world’s few salt cathedrals. There are actually two salt mines here, both near each other, and each one contained a cathedral; but for safety reasons, one mine (and its cathedral) closed, in 1992. Its replacement opened to the public in 1995, and is one of the more surreal tourist sites in the country – which is saying something, considering Colombia also has a safari park started by a drug king.
The local indigenous people were mining salt in this area before the Spanish arrived, and mines in the area (which are full of halite, or rock salt) still produce most of the country’s salt. The entrance price includes a compulsory tour, where we descend (in numerous groups, it’s clearly very popular) down a gentle slope into the hillside, until we’re over 100m underground. The tour covers 14 minimalist ‘chapels’, each one modelled on The Stations Of The Cross – the stops along the route taken by Jesus on the way to his crucifixion.
The chapels are mostly simple crosses made of salt, in their own caves or niches, and are all illuminated with a slowly-changing rainbow of disco colours (which is either cool or tacky, depending on your point-of-view). But the sheer size of the salt mine is impressive (250,000 tons of salt were removed in its creation, and it goes down to 200m deep), and it takes nearly an hour to (very slowly) wind our way to the final stop, an enormous hall, which is easily the size of a large above-ground church, and which is dominated by what the guide proudly tells us is the world’s largest underground cross. I don’t imagine there’s much competition for that particular title, but it certainly is big. The cavernous cathedral (this part of the mine most resembles a regular church) also has two smaller naves, and they’re both complete with statues of various saints, flying angels, and intricately-designed altars, many of which have been carved out of salt. And more disco lighting.
According to the guide, the cathedral started in the very first days of the mine – salt mining (like any other mining) was (and still is) a dangerous job, so a religious sanctuary was carved and altars were made, where the miners would say a few prayers before throwing sticks of dynamite about underground. And now, in addition to being a tourist attraction for both religious locals and heathen foreigners, it’s a working church, with services every Sunday (maybe they give discounts for funerals, as you’re already half-buried? Boom Boom! Okay, I’ll go and die now).
The Stations Of The Cross and the main chapel are actually quite simple and subtle, even with the disco lights, and all the tour groups file through quietly and respectfully, silenty gawping at the size of the mine and the amount of work that must’ve been involved. But all thoughts of subtlety disappear at the end of the tour, where there’s a seemingly-endless parade of stalls and shops, all selling the same religious paraphenalia and salt-related tat. You can take home a tiny salt Jesus, buy a Salt Cathedral T-shirt, sip a latte in the country’s only underground coffee shop, or go on a tour of the fantastic-sounding Brine Museum.
Confronted by all this tacky consumerism, and having spent several hours below ground, I decide to leave my troglodyte brethren and rejoin the humans above. The whole area surrounding the mine has been turned into a salty theme park, with mine tours, a climbing wall, another museum, a food court, the works. Although, like many other Latin American tourist attractions, the one thing that they don’t seem to have is any signs telling you how to get out of the damn place – they can write dozens of signs informing you that they have duty-free emeralds for sale (and today there’s a special discount sale too!), but not one that says ‘Salida’. Pfff. And after I (finally) find the exit and walk back to town, blinking in the bright Andean sunlight like a mole, I realise that I never bought that flashing, disco-lighted, salt Jesus…