- Travelling with a Colombian family
- The Salt Cathedral
- Recommendations for travelers
Travelling with a Colombian family
Some of my most enjoyable memories of my month in Bogota were the times I spent travelling with my host family, Fernando and Marta. They were all too eager to show off some of the most scenic and historic cultural sites in Colombia, and I was all too eager to indulge them and take as many photos as possible along the way. Of all the trips we took together, 3 stand out in my mind more than all the others: exploring the illustrious Salt Cathedral, going to the mountaintop of Monserrate, and going to Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Chiquinquirá, home of the patroness saint of Colombia. These are all major tourist sites worth visiting in Colombia and they highlight some of the most meaningful experiences I had with my host family. In this article I’ll be going over The Salt Cathedral, and in the next two, I’ll tackle Monserrate and the church at Chiquinquirá.
The Salt Cathedral
The salt cathedral is one of Colombia’s national treasures. It draws 3,000 visitors to Mass every Sunday, it draws 600,000 visitors annually, more than 13 million people worldwide have visited the Cathedral, and on February 4th, 2007 the Colombian congress declared the site “the First Wonder of Colombia.”, The story begins about 2,500 years ago, when the Muisca, a pre-Columbian indigenous population in the same region in Colombia, began to extract salt from the halite mines. This operation proved extremely lucrative, leading the Muisca to become economically dominant in the region., The mining continued through the 1800s when more modern mining practices gave the mine a form closer to what we see in the present day. Then, in the 1930s the first sanctuary was built inside the mine., It was erected in honor of The Virgin of the Rosary of Guasa, the patroness saint of miners, and the miners prayed there daily for protection from noxious gasses, explosions, and construction accidents. Then, in 1954, what is now known as The Old Cathedral was built, which was composed of three naves and a giant cross. This site is still part of the cathedral, but was later expanded in 1995 to include the 14 Stations of the Cross, a new structure known as The Dome at the end of the entrance ramp, and three more naves representing the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ., The new additions are known as The New Cathedral.
When we finally finished the drive to the Salt Cathedral, which is located in a mountain near the city of Zipiquirá , the first thing I said to Fernando and Marta was “This looks like Jurassic Park.” Little did I know, the area surrounding the Cathedral is actually called The Salt Park. It is a beautiful, verdant 79 acres of land, that consists of several museums and exhibits in addition to the Salt Cathedral. This is the first picture I took when we got to the site:
As we climbed the stairs, we noticed there was a line of cyclers that were whirling through a dirt path further up the mountain. This park wasn’t just a place for tourist attractions, but also for enjoying the finer side of nature in the country. I’ll never forget how just after we paused to observe the cyclers for a moment, we suddenly came across a group of tourists who were nothing less than stereotypical foreigners from the West: blond hair, blue eyes, and all at least 5 feet 9 inches tall. In addition to Fernando and Marta, there were some other Colombians walking beside us, and I yelled out jokingly in front of them “Aquí vienen los Gringos” (Spanish for “here come the Gringos”) and we all let out a good laugh. The Colombians nearby laughed because I was making fun of the foreigners, and Fernando and Marta laughed because they knew I was a foreigner myself.
The top of the Salt Park was even more beautiful. One of the first things you notice is how high up you are – 8,700 feet above sea level. The air is thinner and you get a breathtaking view of the city of Zipaquirá. Here are two pictures of me at the top of the Salt Park in which you can see the landscape of the city below in the background:
In addition to the beautiful view, you also see some cool monuments at the top. The first structure that sticks out is the rotary hand. It is a giant hand about 10 feet high that is made up of lots of little gears, representing the machinery and hard work put into the salt mine. At a deeper level, one notices that the hand is also an artistic reinterpretation of the Colombian flag; it bears the same horizontal bands of yellow, blue, and red in the same order from top to bottom. The yellow symbolizes sovereignty and justice, the blue symbolizes loyalty and vigilance, and the red symbolizes the strength and bravery shown in the battles for independence from Spain. When these colors sit atop one another on the rotary hand, they seem to further symbolize a universal call for unity, and a reminder that ideals must be built on top of one another from the handiwork of each and every individual worker. Here is a picture of me standing in front of the rotary hand:
The other main structure you see at the top is a giant miner wearing a helmet and chipping away at a rock with some kind of pick hammer. While this structure isn’t as artistically profound as the rotary hand, it’s a lot bigger and it feels surreal to stand next to the giant sculpture and reflect on the dedication and diligence every miner had to put forth every day to extract salt and build the cathedral.
After taking some neat pictures at the top of the Salt Park, we were eager to head inside and check out all the exhibits inside the salt mine. We paid for our tickets at a booth near the statues, and they gave each of us a telephone that looked like one of those old-school walkie-talkies. They told us that as we went through the Stations of the Cross, which was the first exhibit inside the cathedral, we could control the narration of the tour on our own individual phones. A young Colombian woman nearby picked up on the American undertones in my accent and kindly told me that they also offered phones with narration in English, so I switched mine out for one of those. We all then took a deep breath and proceeded down the ramp and entered the dark cathedral.
Stations of the Cross
For those who don’t know, the Stations of the Cross are a series of images that depict Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion. Quoting from the Wikipedia article “The stations grew out of imitations of Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem which is believed to be the actual path Jesus walked to Mount Calvary. The object of the stations is to help the Christian faithful to make a spiritual pilgrimage through contemplation of the Passion of Christ. It has become one of the most popular devotions and the stations can be found in many Western Christian churches, including Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Commonly, a series of 14 images will be arranged in numbered order along a path and the faithful travel from image to image, in order, stopping at each station to say the selected prayers and reflections. This will be done individually or in a procession most commonly during Lent, especially on Good Friday, in a spirit of reparation for the sufferings and insults that Jesus endured during his passion.”
The tour through the Salt Cathedral begins with the 14 Stations of the Cross. At each station there is a cross, sometimes illuminated by a posterior blue light, and sometimes just carved stone, and the carry-on telephone gives a minute and a half summary about that station, including its construction, its religious significance, and interesting stories related to that particular site. There are also several carved kneeling structures at each site for devotional purposes. Though I didn’t feel anything magical or supernatural while deep inside the mine, I did feel a tranquility that I’ve rarely felt at places of worship. The fresh, saline smell of the walls combined with the feeling of being like a spec of dust in comparison with the vast expanse of the surrounding enclosure created the perfect atmosphere to forget oneself and to fixate, in almost a trance-like way, on all the structures and artwork that adorned the cave. It was frustrating to have that trance interrupted by the tour phone or passerby. After we passed through the first couple of stations I told Fernando and Marta that I wanted to come back one day alone, without the tour phones, to take a peaceful walk through the Cathedral and have a one-on-one conversation with God.
Altars, angels, and artwork
As we finished the last station of the cross, we came to a vast expanse where the ceiling was so high it almost looked like a dark sky from the floor of the mine. To our left and right were rows of interconnected long corridors that made us feel as though we were in a corn maze with stone walls. Thankfully guides were readily available to help point us in the right direction to various exhibits.
The most impressive and imposing structure you see after exiting the Stations of the Cross is the giant altar of the Old Cathedral. As mentioned above, this monument was constructed in the 1950s about 40 years before the new additions that debuted in 1995. Almost 70 years after its construction, it is still a wonder to behold. The cross is illuminated by a majestic, cool blue light that exudes the peace of Christ in a way that is all too fitting at the heart of the Cathedral. The cross is so giant it seems to kiss that dark sky ceiling above, and it can be seen from what felt like a stadium away at the exit of the Stations of the Cross. Standing beneath it, I felt I had finally made it to the artistic apex of the Cathedral.
After bathing for a few minutes in the radiant blue light of the Cross, we took a passageway to the chapel in the Cathedral where mass is offered every Sunday. Here we saw many Christian faithful sitting in pews praying, talking, and taking pictures. I took delight in taking a moment to sit down and imagine what it would look like on a Sunday with all the pews filled during a service.
At the front of the chapel were statues depicting the holy family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, adorned on the sides by two bouquets of roses and orchids. On the walls were penetrating, embossed images of angels and saints. My favorite one was the depiction of archangel Michael crushing the head of Satan, here it is:
As we exited the chapel to explore other parts of the new Cathedral, we came to a sculpture of a reinterpretation of one of my favorite works of religious imagery: The Creation of Adam.
One thing I love about the original and this reinterpretation is the emotion that is palpable in Adam’s face. One looks into that stony gaze and sees shame, regret, and despair. It is a dramatic depiction of what we all face in the spiritual life, the piercing self-awareness of our own defects and faults, and the angst and confusion at why we so stubbornly persist in turning our backs on the beliefs and behaviors that bring truth, beauty, and goodness. I love how you can gaze down at the plight of Adam illustrated in the sculpture, and then gaze up and see the redeeming light of the Cross. The juxtaposition is at once mystifying and inspiring.
The Penitent stairs and the water mirror
As you get to the end of the New Cathedral, a tour guide informs you that there is a passageway up through the “Penitent Stairs” which will eventually lead to the gift shop and the way out of the Cathedral. Legend holds that as one walks up those steps, the fatigue one feels is proportional to the weight of one’s sins. I must confess I actually don’t remember how any of us felt going up those steps, and I think the reason might be the last exhibit we saw on the way out which captured our attention: The water mirror.
The pool is only 10 centimeters deep, but when you gaze down it seems to be a bottomless pit. As you stare, you notice that the water perfectly reflects the carvings on the wall and ceiling. It seems to be a glass coating that is fixed in place like an ice sheet, but it is actually a bed of saltwater. I wish I knew more about the history of the water mirror and an explanation of the properties it has, but I guess I’ll have to ask about those details next time I go and get hold of a tour guide.
With that, our journey through the Salt Cathedral was complete. As always, Fernando did the pleasure of driving us back through some rough traffic late at night. I was glad when I glanced up after waking from a nap during the car ride and I saw a sign that read “Welcome to Bogota” in Spanish. We were well on our way home.
Recommendations for travelers
- Arrive bright and early! There is so much to do in the Salt Cathedral including visiting all the Stations of the Cross, taking a look at all the sculptures and paintings on the walls, watching historical short films in the movie theater inside the Cathedral, seeing light shows in the Cathedral, perusing the gift shop, and visiting the surrounding museums and other exhibits in the Salt Park. It can all be done in a day, but expect to go at a brisk pace and try to have at least 8-10 hours to fit all the activities in.
- Talk to the tour guides! They are friendly and willing to answer any and all of your questions.
- This is a great site to see for English speakers since the signs have English translations and the tour-phones offer an English option.
- Be mentally prepared to do a lot of walking around and walking up some steep inclines. You’ll be tired by the end of the day but the experience is well worth it.