Salt cathedral near bogota
21.09.2009 - 21.09.2009 54 °F
Adam thinks we must have been moles in our previous lives as things pertaining to the underground seem to call out to us. Thus a visit to the salt mines and cathedral in Zipaquira became something we just couldn't miss out on. The trip began lazily, as you might have guessed, but by noon we suddenly had three people joining us that we had just met mere minutes ago from our hostel. A peppy Brazilian and two shy teenagers from Copenhagen were by our side for a trip to the salt mines.
Bogota as a city is easily navigable, north and south streets have a numbering system making it impossible to get lost. We caught the new transmilenio bus from las aguas down the street from our hostel and for about 60 cents you can ride it all the way to the end of the line where the outside buses are ready to wisk you away to wherever you wish to go outside of bogota. The transmileno has it's own lanes, operating more like a subway system than a bus. It took us about an hour to go through Bogota to Portal Norte where we caught the little bus to Zipaquira. When we arrived into Zipaquira, we found a sleepy town with many shops closed. We walked up, found a little place that served us the set lunch. For about $2 we lunched on fried chicken, beans, carrot salad, rice, plantain, and lentil soup with freshly made quava juice- what a deal! These set lunches are found everywhere, i guess as a way to provide a nutritious and inexpensive meal to students, the working world, and now budget travelers.
The town of Zipaquira was named after two Native Americans, Zipa and Quira who married and founded the city (thanks Javier the tour guide). They were Muisca Indians that settled in the area to exploit a large reserve of salt that formed over 250 million years ago when the oceans receded, leaving pockets of salt water that evaporated. The evaporated water formed thick salt flats that were folded in when tectonic activity shaped the Andes, creating a large pocket of salt under the earth. The Muisca would dig down for the salt, collect it, boil it down and make large salt cakes used for later consumption and trade. The area was continuously exploited and today the salt mines are still in operation, digging out new chambers and drifts in this elaborate three story system reaching as far down as 180 meters. Javier says the salt pocket reaches a depth of 500 meters. The salt contains no iodine, evidently that is the main difference between sea salt and ground salt so only 5% is used for human consumption and the rest for commercial purposes.
The salt cathedral was carved into one of the chambers. As work in the mines was pretty dangerous with explosives and gases, the cathedral was built as a place for the miners to pray before departing for the day's grim job working in the mines. The original cathedral collapsed due to structural damage as once the salt is exposed, moisture slowly begins to eat away at the integrity of the walls causing them to crumble. The cathedral was rebuilt 16 years ago and is carefully monitored by the miners who take constant measurements of the ceiling. When the find areas of crumbling salt, they chip it away leaving a fresh layer. Javier our tour guide told us that if the ceiling falls more than 10 centimeters, the cathedral would have to be closed down again.
Our descent into the cathedral was welcomed by strong sulphuric gases, tickling our nose hairs. We were told that the smell is good for ailments of the chest and lungs with a new hospital currently being built into one of the chambers underground. Pretty cool however we all found the smell a bit awkward and musty, reminded me of being in a big pot of chicken and onion soup that is about to go bad. The walls reminded me of Petra, with these gorgeous layers of coal, salt crystals, and clay swirling together so fluidly it looked like rivers of glitter. In some places, the salt cascaded down like waterfalls turning black from the coal in some spots. The cathedral even carved out a baptism pool out of the salt, all you do is add water and the salt leaches out turning it into a salt bath. Upon touching the salt walls you feel a warmth, not a coldness of granite but a soft heat radiating out of the walls.
The cathedral was huge, much larger than we anticipated with a long walk with the Stations of the Cross. I suddenly had flashbacks of being in Mrs. Hickather´s class acting out the Stations of the Cross. Mass is held every Sunday and weddings are quite common inside the cathedral with the president even having his own personal access car into the mines while all the other peons have to walk. At the end our tour of the cathedral we tacked on a tour of the salt mines. The best part of the whole tour was getting to don on some serious hard hats with nifty lights attached to the front. We stumbled through some tight caves without our lights on as Javier wanted us to feel what it was like to be in the mines in the dark. Very spooky. There is no light at all and we had to feel around the cave walls to reach the end.
After spending over two hours under the ground breathing chicken onion soup air and stumbling around in the dark, we left the mines towards fresher air. Instantly the cloudy sky looked beautiful and you just felt better being outside. This made me very appreciative of all the miners, past and present, who spend a good chunk of their days inside the mines. What a tough job-Pete Seeger is smiling somewhere at that comment.
We slowly made our way back to the bus station, stopping at the church in the middle of the plaza for a quick stare. Nightfall was soon approaching so we had a beer waiting for the bus, hopped on and made our way back to Bogota. We were warned by the hostel to not walk after 10pm in the streets of the historic district as thieves are quite common so Adam and I are usually in after nightfall. Partly because we are tired after a day of walking and being safe but when we rolled into the city after Zipaquira we found a different Bogotá. Bogota at night is pumping. The university area is buzzing and so alive, restaurants and bars that are closed off completely during the day are open enticing you to sit and have a glass of wine. Unfortunately our trip put us a few dollars off budget so we spent the night quietly in our hostel, talking with other travelers about where to go next.