13th May 2016
Still heavy with a layer of fatigue and jetlag after an overnight flight and early arrival had turned straight into a day of hotel inspections, I didn’t know quite what to expect from an ‘underground salt cathedral’, under than my colleague’s words to “bring a cardy along”.
The cathedral is close to the town of Zipaquirá, about an hour’s drive north of Bogotá, a town with the claim to fame of being where national treasure Gabriel Garcia Marquez went to high school.
It is one of only two underground salt cathedrals in the world, the other in Poland, and receives thousands of daily visitors, tens of thousands on weekends. As an important religious site and place of pilgrimage, despite its lack of any active Bishop, it hosts 37,000 visitors during Good Friday. But at the same time, it still functions as a salt mine, with workers there early in the morning before doors to tourists open from 9am. The salt is used in many products, such as shampoo and soap, and other construction materials are also mined here including limestone and sandstone.
The first miners in these mountains were indigenous groups, but with the Spanish came dynamite and gunpowder, used to blast out empty chambers in the mine in order to extract the salt. It wasn’t intended to be a Cathedral but a miner added a Holy Mary and it soon became a place where they would say their daily prayers. This original space was in fact on the other side of the mountain, but due to safety reasons, it was transferred and re-excavated in the spot it stands today.
I had imagined one underground chapel room but was instead blown away by a complete labyrinth of carved out tunnels, 200 metres underground, along walls made of salt – it’s almost sacrilegious not to have a lick by the way - with beautifully-lit crosses along the way. The 14 crosses along the route are the Stations of the Cross, representing the events of Jesus’ journey to crucifixion and each ripe with its own subtle symbolism.
Impressive enough, but then you emerge into a ginormous chamber, with the world’s largest underground cross (a niche claim, but impressive nonetheless), measuring 16 by 14 metres and weighing… nothing, because as you draw closer you realise the cross is in fact a giant hollow carving. It stands alight with electric blues fading into majestic purples.
Propped up on the ground is a round, stone replica of Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam; look up and you'll see the ceiling swirling with spiral patterns of salt, caused by waves from another era when this mountain was below the sea.
Standing in a dome with stone angels illuminated all around us, we are told that concerts and choir performances are popular here, and I can only imagine the magic of the echoes flying around that chamber on those nights.
I was awe-struck by the architectural feat of the Cathedral, it is visually spectacular and simply a must visit for any visitors to Bogotá, religious or not.