One of my favorite cultural excursions while in Colombia for my FTGC field experience was visiting La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá. La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is located in Zipaquirá about 49 kilometers north of Bogotá ("Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá," 2022) . Zipaquirá is famous for its salt mines and for its proximity to the oldest known settlement within the Americas ("Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá," 2022). La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is part of an area known as el Parque de la Sal and includes several museums so that visitors can learn more about the process of mining salt across time. La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is about 200 meters below ground ("Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá," 2022). La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is considered the First Wonder of Colombia by the Colombian government (Otis, 2019). It is a beautiful space that not only honors the miners who worked in these mines, but also the Catholic heritage that most Colombians share. La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá does offer Sunday services, weddings and special Easter services, but it does not have a bishop so it does not have official status as a cathedral within Catholicism ("Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá," 2022).
The entrance to La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is easily accessible by most people and there are a limited amount of stairs to negotiate within the tunnels. Although I didn't feel claustrophobic as we went deeper into the mine, several of my colleagues felt overwhelmed and chose to leave exit the mine before reaching the cathedral. Upon entrance into the mine, you are greeted by the scent of sulfur, which is comparable to rotten eggs. This scent comes and goes as you travel through the mine. The salt surrounding you floods your respiratory system and easily clears up any congestion you might have had prior to entering the mine. The first set of tunnels you walk through shows how the tunnels were fortified for miners. As I went deeper through the tunnels, I noticed that purple, blue and pink lights were added for artistic effect. This artistic effect reminded me of the Nether World in Minecraft. I took lots of pictures to share with my nephews and students since they love Minecraft! The combination of the lighting effects, scents and tunnels made me feel as if I had stepped into another dimension!
What makes La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá special or different?:
La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is special because most defunct mine shafts in the area were closed off by miners; not turned into sites for tourism and pilgrimages. The first chapel was created by miners in 1932 and you can see the first chapel close to the entrance of the mine. The miners used this chapel to pray for safety while working in the salt mines. In 1954, a larger cathedral was opened deeper underground using some of the galleries that were carved by the Muisca, the indigenous people who lived in the area prior to the arrival of the Spanish. This cathedral was dedicated to The Lady of the Rosary, the patron saint of miners. This larger cathedral was made of 3 naves or sections and one large cross. ("Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá," 2022)
Another special feature of La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is that almost every single statue, cross, kneeler, bench and chandelier within the cathedral is made of salt! The artwork and architecture are simply breathtaking! As you walk past the first chapel, you will see the 14 Stations of the Cross. Compared to other representations of the 14 Stations of the Cross, these are very abstract representations, but are equally beautiful.
How does La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá and salt mining help people the people of Colombia?:
The entire region around La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá is also unique because of the significant amount of salt within the region. Mining still happens behind La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá and in surrounding mines. This region is part of the Andes Mountain range and was once the site on an ancient sea. Our tour guide, Fernando, explained that the ancient Muisca took salt from the surface of the mountains and used it for trade with other indigenous groups. Later on, the Spanish began mining underground. Fernando also explained that no one knows exactly how much salt is in the area and they suspect they could mine salt for the next 500 years and not run out of salt. 40% of all Colombian salt exports come from Zipaquirá (Roller, 2021). Aside from salt mining, Zipaquirá draws in about 600,000 visitors annually to the area and local residents benefit from the money spent by tourists and pilgrims (Otis, 2019). At the foot of the cathedral are many shops where tourists can buy souvenirs and snacks. There is also a sculpture honoring the ancient Muisca people next to the shops that sell emeralds.
What challenges did the Colombian people face with La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá?:
In 1991, La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá had to be shut down due to safety concerns. The cathedral was reopened in 1995. While it had been shut down, the government brought in artists and architects to update and expand the cathedral. The current cathedral can hold almost 3,000 people at one time. Most of the statues, crosses, kneelers, benches and chandeliers were added at this time. The cathedral still has 3 naves or sections, but they were expanded and now represent the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. ("Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá," 2022)
How have people adapted to working and living with La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá?:
Safety is a priority by the staff at La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá. All staff members wear boots and helmets within the tunnels. However, this is not required for guests. Everyday the miners measure the air quality to determine if it is safe for guests to walk through the tunnels to the cathedral. Although mining does not occur within the cathedral, there is mining that happens behind it and in the surrounding area so safety is a top priority.
La Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá
5.0187° N, 74.0099° W