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Cathedral de Sal (Bogota, Colombia)

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Underground Cathedral carved out of salt, located near Bogota Colombia

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      01.05.2011 13:07
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      Neither as salty nor as cathederal-y as I expected

      Big Sis came to stay for 6 days and though originally we'd planned to do half the week away and half here in Bogota, the Colombian capital really is on the small side when it comes to things to see and do, so mid way through the week we decided to tag on an extra day trip, to Zipaquirá. Although too far out of the city to be classed as a local attraction, it's really not a long way away and is an easy day trip on public transport. Zipaquirá is the name of the town but when people talk of going there it's invariably for a visit to its somewhat famous and quite unique Salt Cathedral.

      ... Where Is This Salt Of The Earth? ...

      About 50km north of my current home, you can get a bus to Zipaquirá quite easily from Bogota's Portal del Norte. Busses leave from within the Transmilenio station (enter the regional section from the south east platform) and are marked 'Zipa'. They leave every 15 minutes or so and the trip should cost no more than $5000 (our trip back only cost $3700, randomly). Most buses stop on the fringes of the city to collect people, and then continue to Chia and finally Zipa. We were dropped off with some poor directions and managed to walk for an hour (up hill!) in the wrong direction, so I would recommend grabbing a cab from wherever the bus drops you. It should cost no more than $3000 which is nothing to pay for ease of arrival.

      The alternative is to take the tourist train which runs at weekends and includes a stop in Zipa. This is much more expensive ($38,000 per person return) but includes on board entertainment in the form of Mariachi-style musicians. Whether or not that is a bonus is of course up to you. You can find out more about this transport here:

      http://turistren.com.co/


      ... Take It With A Pinch Of Salt ...

      The Salt Cathedral occupies an area atop a hill a few minutes' walk from the town centre. The first thing you need to do is work out which ticket you want as there are various packages on offer. The basic one includes entry to the cathedral and a 3D film, while add-ons include an additional tour (the Miners' Route), a museum and an (utterly unrelated) climbing wall and scenic mini train tour. These are available in all possible combinations, but you can also buy them individually later on which wasn't made clear at the entrance. We paid $26,000 each for the cathedral entry ($20,000) and the Miner's Route ($6000). This is not cheap - especially than you think that any decent church or cathedral is free of charge - but this is now more tourist trap than it is sacred place of worship, so fees are understandable. At the same time, a typical museum in Bogota costs $3000 to enter, so this should, in theory, have been 8 or 9 times better...

      Tickets are not timed so you can choose whether to nosy at the outdoor area before entering, or go straight in. 'Free' attractions include a massive, good-for-photos statue, a 'food court' (just a few stands) and some souvenir booths featuring local artisan crafts and the ubiquitous photo-gifts. You at the altar of the cathedral printed on a mouse mat, mug, keychain or t-shirt? You can get it here!


      ... A Cathedral Made of Salt, You Say? ...

      This region is known for its salt mines, and still supplies approximately 40% of the country's salt needs. I buy a lot of salt here - to keep the slugs out as much as anything - and it is always Colombian so you could say I already had a connection to the area. The first salt cathedral was built in 1954, but closed in 1992 for safety reasons. This newer one was completed in 1995 and goes through rigorous daily safety checks according to our guide, lest it collapse in a big salty heap on some unsuspecting tourist's head.

      When you think about it, there are some plausible links between mining (of any kind, not just white crystals) and religion, namely that it is a dangerous pursuit during which people, especially in a country like Colombia, pray for the safety of themselves and others. It is not uncommon to construct alters in mines as the miners spend so much of their time there, and in some respects a Salt Cathedral is the next logical step. At the same time, in spite of the thousands of mines in the world, this is the only one with an in built temple touted as a tourist attraction, so perhaps it's not quite as normal as they would have you believe. Either way, it's a little special and something I was keen to see. The last time I was down a salt mine, it was in Hallein in Austria 10 years ago. We dressed up like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, slid down slides, sailed on underground lakes and generally had a jolly good time. While I didn't know quite what to expect with Zipa, I had a feeling my experience was going to be more than a little different. And I was right.


      ... A Tour de Force? ...

      We headed down to the mine entrance, where a vaguely orderly queue was forming, and a digital clock was counting down to the next tour departure. You can only enter with a guide, but it is slightly pointless as you can wander off alone immediately once inside, and you also eventually leave on your own. A screen told us about our guide, including his name and the languages he spoke. His hard hat had the French flag on, but I think that was just for show as he was only advertised as speaking Spanish and English. Unlike many guides here, he didn't start off by asking people where they were from and so on, but when another guest asked him to go into English, he continued his spiel in both languages for the rest of the tour.

      The cathedral is located 180m underground, and it takes a while to get to the central area if you stick with the tour, as first you have to look at the rocks (black not white near the entrance, due to the impurities) and admire the caverns. Next, you pass by the 14 stations of the cross (except number 1, which is hidden away down a different alley). These come in order and have a one line title in Spanish and somewhat dubious English. Now I may have dropped RS at the earliest possible opportunity, and in the last 10 years I may really have only gone into churches when I wanted a sit down or some shade from the sun while sightseeing, but it didn't seem quite right to me. These stations were actually just carved crosses, and they're all pretty much the same, though the guide tried to jazz it up a little by saying things like "imagine Jesus on the other side, where you can't see". I appreciate that Salt could be a tricky substance to work with, but it seemed to me that they'd just carved the exact same thing a dozen or so times. Without the engraved plaques beside each one, I'd really have thought we were just going round in circles.

      Our group was large and full of what I would call amateur tourists - who didn't seem to understand that concept of looking and moving on, so everyone could have a nosy at each bit. But by the time we hit station #6 it was pretty clear we weren't missing much.

      One area made me laugh, if only for the seriousness with which the rest of our misfit group took it. We came to an area with 3 mini tunnels, all leading to the same space a meter or so further on. The guide explained that you had to choose a tunnel based on the sins you needed to repent: tunnel 1 was for those with lots of sins, tunnel 2 was for those with some and tunnel 3 was for those with none. As you walked through you would be forgiven for those misdeeds. But which one would we go through? asked the guide. As everyone clustered round tunnels 1 and 2, these two atheist sisters moseyed on through tunnel 3, simply to beat the crowds. It may have been my imagination, but I could have sworn I heard a few gasps as we did so, though whether due to our deluded belief we were sin-free, or our blatant flouting of this opportunity to purge ourselves, I don't know.

      I had an image in my mind of a traditional looking cathedral, just made of Salt, and by this point I was beginning to wonder if I'd been severely mislead. But, eventually we rounded a corner and found a cavernous room (complete with stylish plastic chairs à la the bargain end of Poundstretcher) that boasted alters at two ends. It still didn't look much like a cathedral, but you could at least get that that was what they were going for.

      The whole tour took almost an hour (less than the 1 ½ hours promised / threatened when we started) and though it was vaguely interesting, it wasn't as visually stunning as I had expected, and nor was the guide full of interesting anecdotes. It was exactly the kind of place where you could imagine intriguing things might have happened during its time as a salt mine or during the construction of the cathedral features, but if that was the case, they were not being shared.

      I think what struck me most was how UN-cathedral-like it was inside... If that's all it takes, you could put a few crosses on the wall of Cadbury World and have yourself a chocolate cathedral. I appreciate the limitations of such a space, but the hype surrounding it means I had expected to see something extraordinary whereas this was definitely ordinary.


      ... Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Off To Work We Go ...

      I had wanted to do more than just the tour, and having no desire to climb a crappy faux-wall, or sit on a fugly train in the rain, we were torn between the museum and the Miners' Route. An employee at the entrance approached us as we were looking at the info board so I asked him and he said in no uncertain terms that the museum was naff, and the Miners' Route much better.

      What we didn't realise until the first tour finished was that this ran on a schedule of every half hour, and because of the timing of our tour, we'd just missed one. We could have gone to watch the 3D film, but that also ran every half hour on the same timetable, which seemed daft. Although you could go back out and buy tickets for the Miners' Route if you'd not purchased them at the start, we were thinking that if we HADN'T bought them before hand, we probably wouldn't bother now due to the silly timings.

      The literature had implied we would get to dress up as miners, but all we really got were hard hats with lights and hard to stash battery packs. This tour was smaller, but still had a good dozen people on it, and this guide didn't speak English or at least didn't offer us a tour in the language. We set off back into the cathedral retracing our steps from earlier, and then headed off to a new area. With strict instructions not to turn on our head lights, we were told to progress through a small, narrow corridor. It was pitch black and my sense of awareness went out the window as I clung to both walls and shuffled slowly forward. Though there had been no information to this effect prior to departure, this tour was clearly not going to be suitable for those with mobility issues.

      The tour was supposed to show us a day in the life of a miner, but it really didn't. We got to see some new parts of the cathedral from different angles, but that was hardly thrilling. Some of the children got to take pickaxes and chip away at a bit of wall, there was a fake 'explosion' complete with puffs of 'smoke' and we got to smash up some rocks and take a few salt crystals away with us, but there really wasn't much else on offer, and the tour was a let-down which I wouldn't really recommend. We spent most of our time turning our lights on and off as directed, but it was never really made clear why we couldn't keep them on all the time, or why we'd had to do that initial tunnel in complete darkness - even in the olden days, they would have surely had candle light if nothing else.

      The tour took half an hour so as we got back we'd once again missed the start of the film. We decided not to go and see it, but by the time we had given our hats back and then returned to the chapel for some less crowded photos, we were half way to the next showing so decided to stick it out after all.


      ... 3D? That'd Be Daft, Dreary and Dull ...

      The last 3D film I'd seen was a Bob The Builder thing at Legoland in Manchester. I didn't think they could get much worse...until I saw this one. In Spanish with English subtitles, I should have been able to understand it twice, but I could barely follow it once. It was about a monster / robot thing that went into a salt mine, via the ever-essential rollercoaster ride that I think is compulsory for 3D films these days. It didn't really have a story or make any sense, and its two redeeming features were that it was free with the main entrance ticket, and only lasted 15 minutes (making you wonder why they didn't at least run them every 20-25 minutes, to stagger them against the Miners' Route departures). Still, it was an interesting experience, not least because the 'cinema' was just a big room in a salt mine, with wooden chairs laid out in rows.

      I think the most irritating thing was that we'd waited 20 odd minutes for the Miners' Route, and then another 30 odd minutes for the film to start, turning what should have been 45 minutes together into more like an hour and a half.


      ... Good, Clean....Emerald Fun? ...

      Beside the cinema entrance and near where the Miners' Route began there were a few shops to look at. My hopes of buying some nice salty souvenirs were dashed - seriously, not even a mini jar of the stuff. But they WERE selling gold and emeralds. On the one hand this is to be expected, as Bogota has museums for both and they are key exports of the area. On the other hand...we're down a salt mine! Surely some good clean salty fun is in order? We didn't buy gems but we did buy chocolate lollipops... There was also a coffee bar down here but it didn't serve much food, which was another wasted opportunity given the time people often had to wait before their next experience.


      ... Place Worth Its Salt? ...

      The cathedral is open all week, but closes when special services are on. You can see photos on the website, with lighting that makes it look much cooler than it actually was.

      http://www.catedraldesal.gov.co/

      Long sleeves are recommended but it's not that cold. Most of it is sloped with some optional stairs, but it is a bit rough under foot so I'd say trainers not heels. It can be dark in places but flash photos are permitted - though some areas really don't lend themselves to producing good shots.

      Of course I'm glad we went, and I can see why so many people go but it's not quite the must-see I was expecting. An intriguing enough way to pass a spare day but if you run out of time don't fret. I have more friends and family coming out over the next few months and this won't be on my itinerary for any of them (and if they're desperate to go, they can go without me). There are some places here I would be happy to return to, like the top of Monserrate, but I'm certainly in no hurry to go back here. If you do decide to go and don't speak Spanish, I would skip the pseudo-English translations, and go at your own pace rather than crawl along with the guide. You can always listen in to another tour if there's something you want to know about, as there are multiple groups down in the mine at any one time.


      April 2011 had $3000 (pesos) to £1

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