I knew the moment I saw the mechanical bull
that we were in hell, not a church.
After three full days in La Candeleria, it was time to escape Bogotá. We decided to head up to Zipaquirá, a lovely town an hours north of the city (sans traffic). It is here that the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral) resides, a Roman Catholic church built deep underground. Really deep. Like 200 meters deep. A structure made out of, you guessed it, salt. Lots and lots of black salt. If you don’t believe it, have a lick.
This version of the salt cathedral is actually really new (the old one was closed down after fear of structural soundness). Think 1995. It’s not some ancient site but one that was built by a bunch of super devout miners and engineers. Ones that never dreamed it would eventually profit the city of Zipaquirá millions of dollars each year. The cave path to heaven is also really long. You walk about a kilometer before reaching the famous cross and pass dozens of scary tunnel arteries that obviously shelter creatures from the movie Descent. And though the salt cathedral is not officially recognized by the Vatican, they still hold Sunday mass. For you and about 10,000 other people, if need be.
We had heard mixed reviews. Some raved that it should be added to the list of world wonders. Others compared in to Starbucks, in all its commercial glory. I liked the idea of facing claustrophobia and the chance to rip the place a new one if it disappointed. So… we hired a private driver because we were lazy f*$#s. And happened to make two friends willing to split the cost. Otherwise, you take a bus and then another bus for a fraction of the cost. Whatever. Luxury worth it.
It wasn’t too crowded when we strolled up to the salt cathedral complex on Monday morning. A complex that— kid you not— included the aforementioned bull, a rock climbing gym, and shop owners wearing their own flag. Ok, some judgement but moving on. We queued up behind the rest of the English-speaking hoard, awaiting our tour that leaves once an hour. Which happened to be quite good. It was a bit excessive— one hour of staring at near identical crosses and black walls— but incredibly informative. For example, did you know you can get hitched in the cathedral? You’ll have to pay for the entirety of admission fees that day, but meh. That’s always on the table. Or pew.
After many teases of the legit cross, we finally reached the jackpot, the largest underground cross. Okay, that part was cool. As were the special bonus tunnels that separated saints from sinners. “Pick one of the three tunnels (we all do so). And YOU are a sinner (tour guide points to me). Go climb those 42 steep stairs and drain your evil.” Whatever. Billy Joel had the right idea.
So all that was A-okay until it was not. See the tunnel barriers sponsored by Powerade? How ‘bout an “authentic” indigenous mask made from salt? Or a LIGHT SHOW? Or a whole complex of tacky souvenir shops that your tour just happens to end in, with no possible escape? LIKE IKEA. Needless to say, we literally fled. Like the creatures from Descent were gnawing on our asses fled. Soon, we found the light and had a revelation: perhaps TripAdvisor can suck it. Check out the video below for the footage:
Lesson learned: So only IF you have extra time in Bogotá, then go visit the salt cathedral. Is it beautiful? Yes. If it an amazing feat of architectural awesomeness? Yes. Do the countless emerald shops, fake manequins, neon lights, cheesy music, and mechanical bull detract from its worth? Yes, they sure do. If you must go, stay in the city the entire day. If only to enjoy the picturesque plaza, lunch at Toro Salvaje, and dessert milkshake from the aptly named Holy Shakes. The better religion experience, guaranteed.