The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, located 49 km north of Bogota, is an unusual underground Roman Catholic church designed by Mexican architect Carlos Mijares and built within the tunnels of a small mine around 720 feet (200 m) underneath a halite or rock salt mountain near the city of Zipaquira.
Formed around 250 million years ago, the salt in the area raised above the sea level in the late Tertiary period, during the formation of the Andes Mountains, the longest continental mountain range in the world. The mines were exploited since the 5th century BC by the indigenous people of Colombia, known as Muisca, who used it for trading. Much later, the Spanish conquistadors in search of El Dorado in the 16th century accidentally stumbled across the salt mountain and discovered a city of salt, instead of the legendary city of gold. The discovery followed a successive series of indiscriminate invasions by numerous adventurers, plunderers and entrepreneurs and it is said that salt from these mines helped to pay the bills for the military campaigners, who brought independence to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
The story of the Salt Cathedral begins in the early 1930s, when the miners carved out a makeshift chapel in the mine tunnel where each day before starting their work they used to pray for their safety and protection. After that humble beginning, a church was constructed by the builders in the early 1950s, which was consecrated on 15 August 1954 and dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, Patron saint of the miners. It consisted of three naves and a monumental cross in the main nave, which was illuminated from the base up, projecting a large cross-shaped shadow on the ceiling.
The right nave included the Stations of the Cross icons and the Rosary Chapel, with the Virgin of Rosary Icon, while the left nave included the icons of the birth of Jesus and the baptism of Jesus, with a waterfall symbolizing the Jordan River. It also had six main columns, along with a part of the gallery originally carved by the ancient Muisca. However, as the church was carved inside an active mine, years of blasting, jack hammering and drilling gradually weakened the cathedral walls. As the authorities were very much doubtful and worried about its structural soundness, they were forced to close it in September 1992, before any mishap.
However, one year before the closure of the old cathedral, work began on a new salt church in 1991, some 200 feet below the old one. Designed by Roswell Garavito Pearl, the new church included structural changes in the access tunnel and the dome. Described as a Jewel of Modern Architecture, the new Cathedral was inaugurated on 16 December 1995, although it does not have a bishop and therefore no official status as a cathedral. Equipped with a capacity of around 10000 people, the cathedral is roughly 75 meters long and 25 meters high, with a giant cross carved into the back wall. The unusual cathedral situated at the bottom has three sections, representing the birth, life and death of Jesus.
The passageway slopes down past a series of room-size chambers, dug out salt rock on either side of the tunnel, which represent the key events that occurred on the way of suffering that Jesus took to his crucifixion and known as Via Dolorosa. Apart from the charming figure of a baby Jesus, there is a six-ton sandstone statue carved by Miguel Sopó Duque that depicts Jesus being taken down from the cross by Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea. There are14 chapels at the entrance of the church, representing the different Stations of the Cross with illustrations of the events of the last journey of Jesus.
All the stations are adorned with a cross and several kneeling platforms carved into the halite structure. All the naves, altars, sculptures and architectural elements of the church are illuminated by colourful lights and the space is outfitted with pews and chandeliers. The dome of the cathedral is located at the end of the main descending entrance ramp, from where the visitor descends to the bas relief cross chambers, the balcony and the Narthex labyrinth.
One of the other main attractions of the cathedral complex is the mirrors of water. The surroundings are illuminated by the reflection of the light on the water, creating a fascinating optical effect of swimming in an underground cavern.
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira shares the mountain with a working salt mine, which is located several hundred feet below the sanctuary complex. However, instead of using the dynamite, today water is used as the salt miner's tool of choice, which dissolves the halite. After that, the resulting brine is pumped to the surface and the salt is removed through evaporation.
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, situated within a larger complex that also contains a museum. It is proclaimed by the Colombian Congress as the first wonder of Colombia, which receives 600,000 visitors annually.