As a veteran travel writer and editor, I don’t get surprised and awed very easily anymore. I wasn’t expecting much when on a tour through Colombia, the guide said we would be visiting a “salt cathedral” outside of Bogota.
I’d been to the giant Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia a few months earlier, where some buildings are made from salt blocks. I was expecting something similar, an overhyped attraction that was really just a chapel made of salt.
Wow, was I wrong. I’m kind of glad I knew nothing about the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral before arriving because that would have eliminated the surprise and awe I felt when I walked into a giant underground chamber that can holds thousands of people for Sunday mass. It’s really spectacular.
This is a well-designed and creative repurposing of place that would have probably just been abandoned. In underground passages that have been mined out to remove tons of (mostly industrial) salt, a place like this would normally have been blocked off and forgotten. In this case, it has become one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions. It’s even got a giant ballroom that would make most hotel owners drool, plus a VIP room for executive meetings.
The entrance is through this disco-lit half-circle passage, which feels like a cross between a movie set and a carnival ride.
Once inside, the mood is sober: 14 stations of the cross are set up as small chapels, some in small nooks, others situated in long mine shafts. They’re abstract and powerful, with nary a Jesus or Mary anywhere: just light and symbolism.
After you go through all these you get to the payoff: a soaring church space that looks incredible from every angle. The main hall is pictured here, but there are two other naves almost as large as this one. Standing on the alter here, with a choir singing in this high-ceiling place, it must be a trippy place to be a priest.
Exiting, you get to stop being serious. You can buy popcorn (plenty of salt available), peruse the gift shop stalls, or drink a Colombia coffee 180 meters under the surface.
If you want to nitpick, this isn’t really a “cathedral” since there’s no bishop, but it is a functioning church—a huge one at that. And while I’ve seen more than my share of churches in Latin America, none of them have looked anything like this!