The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá: A Pilgrimage Point with Flavor

by  Elissa Garay | Aug 19, 2013
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá / diegograndi/iStock

The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá – an ancient salt mine and monumental masterpiece – draws the devout and the curious alike underground to an evocative subterranean temple. Buried more than 650 feet deep into a hillside about an hour outside of Bogota, Colombia, the mine brings precise engineering to a set of Catholic religious scenes. Depicted in intricate carvings, cavernous chambers, and the world’s largest underground cross, all of the sculptures are made entirely of salt. For religious pilgrims, or travelers who thrive on quirky and unusual sites (I fall into the latter category), you’ll find only two such underground salt cathedrals on the planet (you’ll have to trek to Poland for the other one). Here's a full report on what to expect at one of the world’s subterranean wonders...

What to See:

This underground Roman Catholic church fans out through a vast network of labyrinthine corridors and tucked-away sanctuaries, set in an old salt mine, in the timeworn mining town of Zipaquirá. Unfolding on a scale of epic proportions, the church reveals stories of the lifecycle of Jesus, with dedicated stations of the cross and assorted scenes portraying his birth, life, and death, as told through icons and architectural details carved into the rock salt (alongside some marble statues, for good measure). Multicolored lighting adds moody effects. The main altar comes centered on a dramatically illuminated "floating" cross, massive enough to be cited as the world’s largest underground cross.

John Garay

A concept born of a much smaller sanctuary, which was dug out by miners here back in the ‘30s, who used it as a place to pray for protection and safety in their dangerous line of work, the space soon developed into a larger "cathedral" project for public audiences in the ‘50s. Structural instability on that site led it to being moved to its current location – set some 200 feet deeper than the original mine – in 1995.

Don’t miss, too, the "mirrors of water" here, where a salt-saturated pool of water affords a stunning optical effect in one of the caverns. There is also a 3D film production about the salt mines, a laser light show, and some souvenir and food stands (though none of those “extras” were particularly worth their salt).

Making it Happen:

On Sundays, the salt cathedral – a functioning church – is a popular point of pilgrimage for local Colombians. An easy day trip from Bogotá, visitors can access the site via tourist train (Tren Turístico De La Sabana), public bus, or with a tour operator like Bogotravel Tours. Rates are $11/adults; $8/kids, including a bilingual tour guide; guided tours last about one hour.

Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!

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