Since the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira' is billed as the biggest tour attraction in Colombia I wanted to make it a big experience.
I was offered a car to make the 90 minute backroads journey north of Bogota to see the Roman Catholic church built in the underground tunnels of a salt mine. The solitude of a car trip in an edgy foreign country wouldn't be fun. The "Tren de la Sabana" (Savannah Train) goes to Zipaquira, but it only runs on weekends. That would have been fun.
I opted for a small weekday bus that departed near a crowded Tranmilenio station in Bogota. I spent as much time buying $4.99 tee shirts and looking for an Exito umbrella at a big bright yellow Exito (success) super store near the bus station as I did riding the vintage bus.
Built in 1606, Zipaquira' (pop. 90,000) is one of the oldest cities in Colombia.....
.... Once I arrived in Zipaquira' my reservation at the Hotel Cacique Royal had not been confirmed. I was told the hotel was sold out but a friend talked us in at a $35 rate for a night.
People warned me to make the salt catherdal a day trip, but NO, I wanted the BIG experience.
The colonial style hotel was built around 1729 and felt like it. The room was small, a bit grimy and in the morning there was no hot water to stir me up for the bus trip back to Bogota. I also had a rough night of sleep as wild barking dogs woke me up around one in the morning. I couldn't get back to sleep.
Even though the dimly lit streets had a sketchy feel I had to take action.
I put on my jeans and my hoodie and grabbed a warm can of Aguila beer which we had not opened. Of course no one was in the reception area, so I unlocked the front door and marched down the street with my can of Aguila. I saw a couple of barking dogs and screamed at them as loud as I could. The mutts freaked out and turned the corner. I followed them to the corner and yelled again. They were gone.
"Problem solved," my friend said as I returned to bed.
Frankly this was all a bit more exciting than the salt cathedral.
The cathedral is only 15 years old and remains part of a working mine within a mountain. Salt has been mined in the area since the 15th Century. Version one of the salt catherdal was carved out in 1954 but was closed due to deterioration. Work on the current salt cathedral began in the early 1990s (there's also salt cathedrals in Germany and Poland) The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira has 14 sculptures that depict the advancement of the stages to the cross. Colombia is a predominately Catholic country so I can see how the cathedral registers with locals.
But as a non-Catholic I was more impressed with the fact you can actually lick salt walls during the hour long tour and I liked the optical illusions glowing blue crosses and water on a basin of salt.
Our English-speaking tour guide also told us about upcoming research for asthma patients that will be conducted in the cathedral. Salt inhalation was recommended by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who snorted the steam from boiling salt water. Salt Pipes and Crystal Salt Inhalers have already been developed for asthma patients.
I wonder if they sell them at Exito.
The tour ends with a snack shop and souvenir shop where the Salt Catherdal folks are missing the boat by not selling salt and pepper shakers. It's also pretty cool that the cathedral attracts more than 3,000 people for Sunday church services and live concerts are occasionally held in the cathedral. Maybe more impressive than the cathedral is the adjacent Salt Park with lush trails, sculptures, a rock climbing wall and cheese ball souvenir stands where I bought a salt figurine of a salt miner chopping his life away.