Salt – Zipaquira

(I’ve posted some Bogota and environs photos on flickr)

Monday July 22: We went on a day-trp to Zipaquira (about 30 km away from BOG). We were afraid we wouldn’t get back to BOG as we waited for the bus on the corner n Zipaquira. There aren’t really bus stop signs, you just ask around when you see a knot of people hanging out at a major intersection, and you look at the destination signs posted in the windshield of oncoming buses. We only knew where to stand because it was where we got off the bus when we arrived in Zipaquira.  There were no buses with ‘Bogota’ for 10 minutes, which seemed odd, because buses for other destinations were coming at good clip. A young lady, taking pity on two obvious tourists, asked us in English if we were headed to Bogota, and then explained there was drivers’ strike (or a road closure, said someone else), so no buses were going to Bogota until perhaps after 5 PM! Our flight to Cartagena was leaving at 9 PM, and we needed to swing by Carolina and Mike’s to pick up our bags. We contemplated splurging on a taxi to Bogota (45 mins away), but through asking other locals and Spanish-speaking tourists in our predicament, we found out we could take a bus to Briceno (10 KM away) and then from there catch a bus to Bogota. It’s these little hiccups that make travel exciting enough!

But it’s the kind of Murphy’s law thing, that you could get on a bus from Bogota to Zipaquira in the morning, but not catch a bus in the reverse.

It was our last day in the Bogota area, and having exhausted all its core urban charms, and our flight not leaving until late. We figured it was ample time to do a day trip to Columbia’s “First Marvel” as it is billed: The Cathedral of Salt. This salt dome has been mined since pre-Columbian times, controlled by the Muiscas. Today it’s more of a tourist attraction, the current incarnation inaugurated only in 1995 (the original Cathedral of salt was closed because it had become structurally unsafe.) There’s a confusing cafeteria plan of options to choose from when you buy your ticket, since there’s a couple of museums, a miner’s tour, a climbing wall (outside) that you can add on to the basic entrance fee of 20K pesos. There’s supposed to be English guide, but we didn’t bother waiting for that, since you have to go in with a guide. Once you’re inside, you pause for a bit under a ceiling of LED light displays that keeps rotating flags of the world.  “If they don’t show Thailand, I want my money back,” I muttered to Joe. To my shock and delight, two changes later, there were the familiar stripes of red, white, blue, white and red! (The star-spangled banner also showed up later.)

The first part of the tour was a bit boring. They had taken long hallways left from the previous mining excavations and carved simple crosses at each one, which were supposed to represent the 13? stops Jesus Christ made, i.e. Jesus being helped by Simon in carrying the cross  (like in the Passion Play? with which I am not familiar. I guess I should have checked out a performance when I was in the Netherlands for Good Friday earlier this year.) There was a purpose for the religious theme: mining is/was dangerous, so miners would pray and make offerings to the patron saint of miners for protection.

Having visited the Wieliscka salt mine in Poland, this was a bit of let-down though. Also having recently visited the caverns at Great Basin National Park with its natural stalactites, and stalagmites, I kept thinking I should see the same since I was in a cave. Although of course, this cave is completely man-made. (Later, we did see a wall carving of a very elaborate leafy tree, with owns and ants and a woman making an offering. Hopefully they’ll add more of those.) Actually, what would be really cool is if they had a Battle of the Christian-rock bands in there, one band at each cross/stop. They’ve already got the cool lighting installed, after all. The acoustics in a salt mine must be pretty unique. As a matter of fact, they had piped in Gregorian chant music in the cathedral area.

We finally figured out we could ditch the guide and the group, and walk ahead. Making our way down the ramp, we finally found the headline attraction, the Cathedral itself, complete with wooden pews. It was pretty massive, but again not really decoratively carved. (They hold masses there on Sundays.) There was a bewildering smell of popcorn. Maybe I was imagining things, salt goes with popcorn, and I was in a salt mine in a mountain (Maybe if this was a salt mine by the sea, I would think I was smelling salted fish.)

A white speck of fluff on the floor caught my eye. It was definitely popcorn. The passageways extending from Cathedral housed a complete suite of tourist amenities: souvenirs stands selling carvings of salt, mochilas (traditional Columbian handicrafted bucket bags), but it seemed like most of the stands sold emerald jewelry, probably mined from elsewhere. There was a coffee/snackbar (drink coffee 180 meter below the surface!), and a popcorn stand. Presumably, the popcorn was salted with wall scrapings.  The popcorn made sense now, because there was also a 3-D movie theatre; and a cavernous room with yet a giant LED ceiling, which had a sound and light show. The 3-D movie was actually helpful in explaining the origins and the set-up of the mine (and thankfully had English subtitles.) A pool of water which was completely still and reflected the striations of the salt and rock in the ceiling. There were a couple of stands that were decorated like carnival fun room sets: golden Muisca statues, a hacienda courtyard in a tienda. The entrance fee was overpriced for a natural attraction, but completely worthwhile as cheesy entertainment. There’s lots more caverns left, so I’m sure there will be enterprising ways to convert those leftovers from the mining operations and relieve visitors of more money 180 meters below the surface.

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