After Villa de Leyva, our epic road trip through eastern Colombia began to wind down. We had two more heritage towns to visit: Guaduas and Honda. But first, we made a two-night stop in Zipaquirá near Bogotá to see one of Colombia’s most famous attractions: the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral).
Salt Cathedral Facts
The cathedral is built into the world’s largest deposit of halite (rock salt). Mining activities date back at least 6 centuries, when the ancient Muisca indigenous people first began excavations. In fact, these salt deposits played a key role in the Muiscas’ creation of one of South America’s most prosperous pre-Hispanic societies. Centuries later, the mines helped finance Colombia’s drive for independence from Spain.
Fast forward to the 1930s, when the miners built a small chapel in which they could pray to the Virgin of the Rosary of Guasá, their patron saint. When the old chapel was deemed structurally unsound, work began on a new cathedral to be constructed 200 feet deeper (for a total depth of over 600 feet). The new cathedral was inaugurated in 1995 – winning several international architectural awards.
Visiting the cathedral is essentially a three-part experience. First, you traverse a broad corridor to view the 14 Stations of the Cross, each carved in a highly symbolic manner into the halite rock. Next, you arrive at the “choir loft” high above for your first glimpse of the stunning main floor of the cathedral. Finally, you descend to the floor level consisting of three naves depicting the birth, life and death, and resurrection of Christ. Additional small chapels commemorate various Catholic saints.
Colombians themselves voted to name the Salt Cathedral the “First Wonder of Colombia.” Today, it’s a functioning Catholic church, drawing thousands for Mass on many Sundays. (Note: Don’t visit on Sunday!)
(Usual note: Photos are in galleries – just click through to see a larger view.)
Zipaquirá – A Cool Town
Although the Salt Cathedral is the reason most people visit Zipaquirá, it’s an interesting town in its own right – well worth a two-night stay. Zipaquirá is named for Zipa, the ancient Muisca ruler of the territory.
Our Tips for Visitors
- The Salt Cathedral is a short, uphill (but easy) walk from the Zipaquirá main plaza. On the approach to the mine, you’ll walk through the large and well-laid-out Parque de la Sal, with its collection of museums, cafes, and other attractions. On the day we were there, some sort of young people’s arts festival was going on with lots of music, dancing, juggling, and other activities.
- The Salt Cathedral website (in Spanish but easy to translate to English) has all the information you need for a great visit. Admission for us two “oldsters” was about $14 USD apiece and included a very informative audio guide, available in English. You can also buy tickets in advance through the website.
- Time your visit wisely! Keep in mind that the Salt Cathedral is HUGELY popular and gets very crowded, especially on weekends. We visited on a Monday, arriving a little after the 8:00 a.m. opening time, and we had the place essentially to ourselves. As such, the cathedral had a hushed, reverent, and almost mystical feel, enhanced by echoing Gregorian chant over the sound system. I’m sure it’s a completely different experience when it’s packed with tourists.
- The Hotel Camino de Sal was an ideal choice for our two-day stay. The modern and cozy inn is only a block from the Plaza de la Independencia, with friendly English-speaking staff. Breakfast and secure parking are included for about $40 USD a night.