Colombia is home to an underground church, here’s how to see it in person

Known as the Salt Cathedral, this Roman Catholic church has a long history in Colombia and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Wherever the Spanish Catholics colonized, they built many large and majestic churches and cathedrals. After destroying the ancient sacred precinct of the Aztecs, they built the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City. But perhaps one of the most unusual in the Spanish-speaking world is the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira near the town of Zipaquira in Colombia.

It is an underground Roman Catholic church built in the tunnels of a salt mine 200 meters or 660 feet underground. The Salt Cathedral is both a tourist destination and a place of pilgrimage in the interior of the country. The cathedral is considered one of the most amazing Colombian architectural achievements, with some even calling it a gem of modern architecture.

The history of the Salt Cathedral

The geological formations that make up the Zipaquira deposits formed around 250 million years ago when they rose above sea level – at the same time as the Andes formed. 250 million years ago, it is the oldest time of the dinosaurs.

The cathedral is remarkable, sitting in the ancient salt mines from which millions of tons of rock salt have been extracted over the past two hundred years. In fact, these halite mines were mined long before the European era in the Americas. They have been used by the Musica culture since the 5th century BC.

The salt church has humble origins. Mining in these caves was very dangerous. At first, it was only the miners who prayed in a small shrine that they had built inside the caves. They prayed to the patron saint of miners to protect them from the dangers of mining – like explosions, poison gas, and other mining dangers.

  • Virgin of the Rosary of Guasa: The patron saint of miners
  • First shrine: Built in the 1930s
  • Firm: The first church was closed due to structural problems

The Colombian government was persuaded to convert the empty spaces into a church in 1953, but the church was closed in 1990 due to structural problems. Then 127 miners and a few sculptors were brought in to build the cathedral which can be seen and appreciated today (it is 200 feet below the original cathedral). The new cathedral was completed in 1995.

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The salt cathedral today

The Salt Cathedral is technically not a cathedral as it does not have a bishop and therefore does not have official cathedral status within Catholicism. Nonetheless, it manages to attract around 3,000 visitors on Sunday.

  • Visitors on Sunday: Around 3000 visitors

Today, visiting the Salt Cathedral is an easy excursion from Bogota. It is located only about 49 kilometers or 30 miles north of Bogota at an elevation of about 2,652 meters or 8,700 feet.

  • Site: 49 kilometers or 30 miles north of Bogota

The tunnel leading to the Salt Cathedral was described by NPR as “more like a detour into the bowels of the earth. It is dark and humid, with a faint smell of sulfur in the air.“But after walking the passage for a few hundred meters (yards), the well widens to reveal Roman Catholic icons – and they are carved out of salt.

The busiest time for the cathedral is Easter, when thousands of people attend services to mark the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Below, the cathedral opens. Here there are three naves with one representing the birth of Jesus, another the life and another the death of Jesus. The Salt Cathedral features a basilica dome, floor-to-ceiling cross illuminated with purple lights, pews, and chandeliers.

  • Stations of the Cross: At the entrance of the church, has 14 small chapels which represent the Stations of the Cross and tell the same story of Jesus’ last journey
  • In stations: In each of the stations there is a cross and several kneeling platforms
  • Columns: There are four large cylindrical columns which each represent one of the four evangelists

The cathedral is equipped with an electric generator and there is vehicle access to the interior space, but this is only in an emergency.

  • Visitors: Around 600,000 visitors per year

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Visit the cathedral today

  • Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9 am to 4:30 pm | saturdays and sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Sunday Mass: At 1 pm

To note: Pets, food, alcohol and smoking are prohibited inside the cathedral

You can find all the information about visiting the cathedral on their official website. One can see what events are taking place in the cathedral and a full story of its history. However, the site is only in Spanish!

In Europe, when the Sagrada Familia is completed, it will be the largest church in the world and a must see for anyone visiting Barcelona.

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