In addition to the many sites we explored within Bogota, we took one day to head outside of the city to the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá (Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral). It is almost two hours outside of Bogota on the buses, through three towns. Our hosts kept referring to it as “Mina de Sal,” which translates to “Salt Mine,” and we had no idea what a salt mine entails, but it sounded cool. On the way, we stopped and Elliott had an empenada with beef and rice inside which was really good. (Empenadas in Ecuador are good but much plainer.)
We paused in the main square of the town when we arrived, as it has a beautiful huge church made of stone. Inside there was a mass going on but we took a couple photos.
Then we walked up the many steps to the mine. The mine is inside a mountain, and there is actually a white line painted up the many steps you need to climb to get to the entrance. There were many “Follow the yellow brick road” jokes along the way.
There were no English tours for a while, so we took the train ride around the small city for a half hour. We got to see another pretty church, some shops and nice views, and a cool alligator Elliott promised we could come back to.
Back at the top, we ate sandwiches at some tables with umbrellas and a great view.
The tour of the salt mine was completely awesome. It is massive. The entire thing is made of salt rock – a mixture of rock and approximately 80% salt. It looks like so similar to granite it could easily fool you until further inspection.
As for the cathedral: it started as a sanctuary carved by the Catholic miners in the 1930’s in order to gain protection from the saints. In the 1950’s, the first cathedral was built. The miners continued to use the mine however, and eventually took so much rock and salt out that the mine became unstable and parts collapsed. The old cathedral was no longer structurally sound, so in the 1990’s this new cathedral was built 200 feet underneath the first one (200 meters underground!).
This time they reinforced it better by leaving many huge parallel caverns untouched. They decorated *each* of those caverns with a cross; more specifically a station of the cross. (No, I’m not kidding.) This is why it is officially Catedral de Sal. The crosses are gigantic and often backlit in blue. There are even kneelers in front of them! Today, the Salt Cathedral is another place of pilgrimage in Colombia, and the functioning church attracts approximately 3000 visitors on an average Sunday!
Here are some examples of the different ways they created the crosses at each station –
There were other things along the way, too, as we went down, down, deeper into the mine. There was an angel statue, a manger, and the “creation of man.”
There was a salt waterfall, and a place where you had to choose your path, where the path determined how much of a sinner you were.
There was also a light show which was a bunch of little lights on the ceiling making pictures like flags and butterflies. Then we took an optional mining tour to learn what the miners’ jobs were like. We even got to try it ourselves!
This place is definitely worth a visit if you ever get to Bogota.
Our other experiences in Bogota were centered on the home and family. Paola and her mom and aunt cooked for us many times, and it was always delicious. We had a Colombian breakfast soup with potatoes and a hard-boiled egg called ajiaco, and it was delicious! They also made arepas several times and they were always tasty. (They’re kind of like thick corn tortillas.) On our last night, Paola made us a very special dinner called Bandeja Paisa. We were told it is *the* national dish of Colombia. It included pork, ground beef, rice & beans, avocado, a fried egg, plantains, chorizo (sausage), morcilla (a different kind of sausage) and an arepa. What a ton of food! And we loved every bite. (If only we had thought to take a photo of this amazing dish!) Elliott cooked lunch one day and we made one of our richest cake recipes for the family, but there was no way we could match what they had done for us.
One of our favorite events was Paola’s father’s – aka Papa Miguel’s – surprise birthday party. We wondered if it would be at all similar to an Ecuadorian family party. Everyone (including us) dressed up, caterers cooked in the kitchen and there was a live band! All the living room furniture had been precariously stacked in the kitchen which was just so funny to us. And around the edges of the living room, there were white plastic chairs with white chair covers and blue bows tied around the chair back. That part was just like parties in Ecuador! This one was definitely fancier than what we have experienced though.
Drinks were brought around to us several times, and at one point a bunch of toasts were made. There was much dancing, and Paola put on the slideshow of photos of Papa Miguel that she had made. Paola’s daughter Valery even sweetly and bravely performed a song for her beloved grandfather! And Paola’s sister Skyped in from Paris, where it was the middle of the night, to join the party. It was so special to see a family with such close ties all participate in this celebration together.
When it was time for dinner, they gave us plates but then actually went to the trouble of setting up plastic folding tables and table cloths in front of all of us so we could eat at tables! Amazing. After we ate they collapsed the tables and put them away again, and there were more drinks and dancing, and then a many-layered cake was served. The party went so late that we had to excuse ourselves so we could go to bed. There was little sleep, though, with all the merriment outside our bedroom door!
All-in-all what started as intimidating and unknown turned into a terrific sight-seeing and cultural week. We certainly improved our Spanish! All of these wonderful new experiences, thanks to our friend Paola and her family. Without them, our experience in Bogota would have lacked so much.
On our last day, Paola, her daughter, Valery, and her father drove us to the airport, and we parted only after many big hugs. We realized the Salt Cathedral wasn’t the only “Salt of the Earth” we found here. We hope to return some day and spend more time together.