Seeing as our Bogotá hotel was just down the Transmilenio from the Portal del Norte terminus, we couldn't miss the opportunity to visit the attractive historic town of Zipaquirá, and in particular its amazing salt cathedral. A 40-minute bus ride from the terminus, Zipaquirá is the most popular day trip from the capital, and it's absolutely worth the effort.
For starters, Zipaquirá town has a lovely historic centre with cathedrals, squares and shopping streets. The bus from Bogotá drops you off on the other side of town to the salt cathedral, but it's an enjoyable 15-minute walk through town to the entrance to the cathedral complex. The only problem is that because this is a pilgrimage site, there's also a long walk uphill to the cathedral, following a white line painted on the steps. I suppose you could take a taxi, but that would be cheating.
There are only three salt cathedrals in the world – the other two are in Poland – so a trip to Zipaquirá is a pretty unique experience, even for seasoned travellers. The first salt cathedral here, which was opened to the public in 1954, had its origins in a sanctuary that the salt miners built for their own use back in the 1930s, but the cathedral was on a much grander scale, with a central nave that was 120m long and 20m high. Unfortunately, as it was carved out of an existing mine, it became unsafe and was closed to the public in 1990. In 1991, the government paid for a new cathedral to be built, 200ft beneath the first cathedral, and it opened in 1995 after some 250,000 tons of salt had been removed from the mine shafts that already existed there.
When I first read about the salt cathedral at Zipaquirá, I naively imagined cavernous white rooms full of carvings in pure white salt, but salt cathedrals aren't like that at all. Salt is locked away in halite rocks that are incredibly hard, and the miners have to blast them away with dynamite and drill them out with huge machines; indeed, the rock is so hard that the tunnels they dig don't need beams to support them – they just need monitoring in case chunks of the roof flake off – so what you get in the salt cathedral is bare rock all around you. The rock is actually dark grey, so your average salt cathedral feels more like a stone cathedral, and the salt part is almost incidental (though you do see salt stalactites hanging from the roof in places, and if you lick the walls, they taste salty). I was faintly disappointed when we entered the mine and discovered that it wasn't a dazzling white, but my disappointment didn't last.
Because even though it wasn't what I was expecting, it was incredible. It starts with a walkway down into the cathedral that is lined with sculptures representing the 14 Stations of the Cross, which tell the story of Jesus's crucifixion. These sculptures are modern and symbolic – Jesus is represented by a cross and kneeling stones represent other people – and while some are small and intimate, some of them open onto massive chambers left from the mining operations, all of them lit in an eerie manner that sent shivers down my spine (I don't like large, dark, enclosed spaces, so they triggered my phobia perfectly).
Luckily we'd joined an English-language tour of the cathedral, and although the tour guide sounded like a cheesy American salesman chanelled through a home computer voice synthesizer from the early 1980s, he did explain what the sculptures meant. It also meant we were in a large group of American tourists and, strangely, a group of French speakers who insisted on talking non-stop amongst themselves throughout the entire tour, so any shudders I felt at being underground and near such huge chambers were tempered by the irritating nature of the tour group. If I were a Christian and not surrounded by gibbering foreigners, I would find this part of the cathedral pretty powerful.
But the Stations of the Cross are nothing compared to the cathedral itself, which you reach by passing under a huge lit dome and down a short corridor. Suddenly a balcony opens up and there, in front of you, is a monstrous chamber, 75m long and 18m high; this is the central nave of the cathedral, which has three naves in total. At the far end is a huge illuminated cross, and overlooking the pews of the cathedral below is a carving of an angel blowing a trumpet. It's like being inside a cathedral, but instead of being a building, the chamber is deep underground and is carved out of solid rock.
You access the cathedral by taking one of three staircases and walking beneath the gaze of a statue of St Michael the Archangel, which is lit from below and manages to look worryingly like a weeping angel from Doctor Who. And then you enter the cathedral proper, and the immensity of the three naves hits you. The first nave contains a nativity scene set into a recess in the side wall, and it's made up of stone sculptures by the same Italian sculptor as St Michael and the other angels in the cathedral. At the far end of the nave there's a font and a salt waterfall spilling from the top of the end wall; the flowing white of the waterfall is made from salt crystals that flow down the wall over time, as there is a very small dribble of water through the rock here that crystallises the salt from the rock.
The middle nave is the one you see from the balcony, and it turns out that the huge cross at the far end is in fact hollowed out of the rock and is illuminated from inside; from the balcony the cross looks solid, but it's a clever optical illusion. There's a sculpture of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, in which the sculptors have inexplicably made Adam and God touch, and there are four immense columns of stone carved from the walls that represent the writers of the four gospels. Finally, the third nave is reasonably empty and our guide skipped it entirely, presumably because next on the list was the commercial centre.
It's odd, the commercial centre. Here you are in a cathedral – a real one, where they do weddings and baptisms – and just off the main drag is a large and tacky row of shops selling salt-stone crosses, models of pre-Columbian statues, jewellery, popcorn, coffee and tourist trinkets, and although there's an interesting little man-made pool whose waters are so still that they act like a mirror, the rest of the commercial centre is so overtly commercial that it feels a bit weird after the Stations of the Cross and the powerful architecture of the cathedral. But I guess this is one of Colombia's top tourist attractions, and you might as well reap what you sow.
Luckily the tackiness of the commercial centre is easy to avoid, and as the way out of the complex is back the way you came, you get a chance to enjoy the sights and sounds without the distractions of a noisy tour group and an overenthusiastic guide. Even second time round, it's an amazing place, and is well worth a visit.