250 million years ago, an inland sea covered the area of the high Andean plain – the Altiplano Cundiboyacense – on which the old colonial town of Zipaquirá stands. As the eastern cordillera of the Andes formed, the sea dried up leaving huge salt deposits which the pre-Colombian Muisca civilisation mined and traded from the 5th century BC, helping to make them one of the most prosperous peoples in pre-Colombian America. The town derives its name from the Muisca chiefs, or zipas, who once ruled the area.
Within the mines, they built shrines dedicated to the Lady of the Cave for protection during their difficult and dangerous work.
Mining continued after the Spanish conquest and later contributed to financing the war for independence in the early 1800s. In 1932 miners carved a sanctuary in the mine and dedicated it to La Virgen del Rosario de Guasá, an act of syncretismo conglomerating Christianity and the Muisca Lady of the Cave (Guasá meaning ‘cave’ in the Muisca Chibchan language).
The first salt cathedral was completed in 1954 but closed in 1990 for structural reasons. I visited this earlier cathedral in 1986. My memory is of an impressive structure, though smaller than today’s.
The present salt cathedral opened in 1995 and was declared ‘Colombia’s First Wonder’ in 2007. It’s 180 metres deep and 250,000 tonnes of rock salt were extracted to build it. There are a number of different attractions including a museum, a miner’s route and a climbing wall, as well as the cathedral itself.
We descended through an illuminated tunnel into the calm, dark interior and sulphuric smell of the salt mountain’s crystalline walls. It was not long before my ill health prevented me from keeping up with the guide and the rest of his party, but no guide – no problem: although you must enter the museum with a guide, there’s no obligation to stick with him once inside.
A series of chambers cut into the rock salt house minimalist scenes of the viacrusis. Monolithic crosses illuminated by colour-changing lights create a peaceful ambiance that can be appreciated whilst standing or from one of the kneeling stations demarked by small slabs.
The cross at the eighth station occupies negative space: it’s carved into the rock to symbolise the transformation of the physical into the spiritual, while the cross of light at the ninth station represents the resurrection.
From a balcony, a trumpeting Gabriel heralds a first glimpse of the 75m long central nave with its 16m high cross glowing at the far end; and the earthly and heavenly conjoin under a celestial blue dome.
In the Chamber of Life in the central nave, the huge illuminated cross looms over a circular marble floor sculpture of Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Man’.
To one side, the Chamber of Birth contains a carved nativity and a salt water font – salt water must be used as fresh water dissolves rock salt – in front of a foaming halite waterfall.
Further on, a small display depicting a group of ancient Muisca people marks the indigenous heritage of the area. There’s also an audiovisual cinema that shows a film of the history of salt mining in the area and an underground café that serves delicious and reasonably priced palos de queso (cheese sticks), as well as a gift shop.
A pool with perfectly still water only visible with the agitation of a breath evokes the underworld. By reflecting the cave ceiling, it appears much deeper than it is – but, like the negative space crosses, it’s another optical illusion.
We continued to the miner’s route, which is more of a mining experience. Not for the claustrophobic, a guide leads a group through cramped and low-ceilinged mining tunnels in pitch darkness. Though no problem for me – my pre-illness SCUBA diving involved many ventures into shipwrecks; my normally feisty and courageous elder daughter whimpered and clung to my arm as we groped our way along the walls. We all have our foibles and hers is claustrophobia.
In a strange way this was a levelling experience – I’m not claustrophobic in the usual sense so the cramped underground blackness didn’t bother me and it forced everyone to slow down to my pace. The kind of claustrophobia that frightens me is being entombed at home or in bed by illness.
The children loved hacking at the rock salt with pickaxes, and we got to keep a few nuggets as souvenirs.
Our guide built expectation before the simulated explosion. I don’t know what I was expecting – of course they weren’t going to set real charges underground! It was just a recording. I’ve laid explosives myself (on an underwater explosives course, not for any illegitimate purpose, you understand) so I can imagine how terrifying and dangerous the real thing must’ve been for the miners, and why they needed shrines.
Outside, the children enjoyed the ceiba-tree-shaped climbing wall.
The trip took me many hours more than a healthy person; we barely fitted it into a day. But by adjusting expectations – accepting the pain and slow pace my illness imposes – I was able to enjoy the ethereal serenity of the salt cathedral.
to see more of my photos of the Salt Cathedral and Mines of Zipaquirá and here:
to see my video.