The entry has a utilitarian, slightly industrial feel, appropriate for the working mine it once was. It is mid-week and the car park is almost empty. We walk past old machinery, like modern works of art, testimony to its heritage and a small café and its two lone customer sitting at one of the outside tables drinking coffee.
Then we gently descend, the path becomes a tunnel. We move out of the sunshine. Out of the warmth. And into the cool, dark, entry to Colombia’s Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira, the Roman Catholic salt cathedral about 50kms north of Bogota and some 200 meters underground.
The rich deposits date back to when the earth shrugged 250 million years ago and created the Andes. Since pre-Colombian times the local Muisca society had mined the salt providing them with an important source of economic exchange. Today it is still a functioning church, with thousands attending the Sunday services, more on special celebrations like Easter, Christmas and saint’s days.
The entry tunnel takes visitors through the 14 Stations of the Cross, each with a small chapel comprising of a large cross and individual kneelers, all carved out of the rock. An eerie blue light emanates from strategic points, casting long dark shadows that are both beautiful and vaguely spooky. It is cool and the air is crisp. Without intending to, we speak in whispers. Apart from an occasional other visitor, we are alone. And I’m grateful. I wouldn’t want to be packed in here with thousands of others. Even if it is a church.
We have been descending more steeply than earlier and have arrived at The Dome and finally, past giant statues of the Arch Angels Gabriel and Michael, into the three naves of the Cathedral proper with the vast illuminated crucifix towering above. Our voices ricochet off walls and floor then float for a few seconds before disappearing into black cavernous space.
There has, since the mid-30s, been a small chapel, a sanctuary for the workers, somewhere they would go daily to seek protection from Our Lady of Rosary, the patron saint of miners. In the 1950s it was developed into a much larger building, within the actual mine workings until safety fears saw its closure in 1990. Five years later a new Cathedral, capable of holding 8,000 people, was complete and has become one of the most important pieces of architecture in Colombia.
As we wander among the dark wooden pews and statues, the artifacts and icons, arrows of light are slicing through the darkness like experiments from TV’s CSI. A high-tech sound system is sending music soaring. Too bad we won’t be here to see the full sound and light show. It’s going to be sensational.
The Cathedral is part of a complex that includes a museum of mining and mineralogy. Visitors can get there on an organised tour or on the Savanna tourist train from Bogota. There are numerous restaurants and cafes on the approach to the complex where you can get a meal.