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Colombia’s Number One Wonder: The Zipaquira Salt Cathedral

Cathedrals are designed to draw our eyes, thoughts, and prayers heavenwards.  European masons re-discovered the principles of Euclidian geometry, enabling them to raise their Gothic masterpieces ever higher throughout the Golden Age of Medieval architecture, which in turn gave way to the massive domes and soaring cupolas of the subsequent Renaissance and Baroque periods.  But some two hours North of Bogota, the renowned Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is built in the opposite direction: hewn downwards into the depths of one of the town’s salt mine.

The salt mine of Zipaquirá is more than 250-million years old, formed when the sea dried up, leaving a mountain of salt.  The sophisticated Muisca civilization became economic titans of the region in the pre-Hispanic era, thanks in large part to their ability to mine the salt and use it to prepare and preserve food.  When the Conquistadors arrived 1537, they immediately recognized the potential of the mine, though it would take them several centuries to fully exploit it’s potential.  19th-century machinery enabled the miners to delve deeper into the depths of Zipaquirá, increasing both the yield of the mine and the hazards for the miners.

Perhaps it was this increased danger that first inspired Zipaquirá’s miners to carve small religious objects into the walls the mine, in what became a small sanctuary where they said prayers for their safety before work.  By the 1930s, this small sanctuary had expanded into a larger place of worship, possibly built over the site of a much older, pre-Christian shrine.  In the mid-1950s, the church was expanded and dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, the patron saint of miners in South and Latin America.  Despite continued refusal by the Vatican to consecrate the cathedral, pilgrims and locals flocked to hear mass in ever-increasing numbers until the authorities determined the structure was too dangerous to continue to allow people to visit.

But Zipaquirá’s faithful were not to be deterred.  Funds were raised to build a new cathedral inside the decommissioned mine in time to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1995.  Zipaquirá’s Salt Cathedral earned the #1 spot on Colombia’s 7 Wonders, and only narrowly missed being placed on the list of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World.  Join the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend almost three-quarters of a mile down in to the depths of the former salt mine and it is easy to see why: the Salt Cathedral is mind-boggling in its massive scale, with an almost other-worldly beauty, with its stalagmites and stalactites masterfully illuminated with blue, green, and red floodlights that reveal the natural wonders of the subterranean world.

The Salt Cathedral is divided into three naves, representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ, and fourteen chapels, which represent the Stations of the Cross.  The main alter of the Salt Cathedral is carved from a titanic 17-ton block of salt and the 16-foot cross, which looms above it is believed to be the largest underground cross of any Christian church. 

The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is still not recognized by the Vatican and thus has no bishop to preside over it.  This does not seem to deter the faithful, who continue to flock in ever-growing numbers to worship in 590 feet below the earth’s surface.  The cathedral’s massive area can accommodate up to ten thousand worshipers, through the weekly average is more like three thousand, swelling to seven or eight during religious holidays.  It remains a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike, and as Colombia emerges as a compelling new cultural destination, it seems likely that the Salt Cathedral’s renown will only spread. 

Join Alexander + Roberts on a fascinating journey to Colombia on our unique private itinerary, Charms of Colombia, with flexible departures any day.  Speak to one of our equally charming reservation agents about this and other adventures to Latin America and beyond!

Posted: 10/30/2017 12:09:05 PM by Alexander + Roberts