Much to the dismay of the conquistadors, the Legend of El Dorado and its huge city made of gold was not true. Instead, they stumbled across another valuable resource – salt.
The hills to the north of Bogotá were once part of an ocean. The ocean dried up and the salt was trapped and covered by the mountains and hills. Eventually, the mining operations started by the native Muisca people were exploited by the Spaniards. These mines became much more modern and organized throughout the years to maximize the extraction of salt.
Catedral de Sal
The most famous mines are in the city of Zipaquirá (also called Zipa). In 1954, miners finished construction on a huge cathedral located inside the mines. This cathedral became a tourist attraction which was later closed in 1990 for safety reasons. Work on a new cathedral was completed in 1995. This new cathedral is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country.
The Catedral de Sal is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm. Basic admission is COP$50,000 for adults and COP$34,000 for children (as of June 2017). There are other activities available for an additional price, such as wall climbing, a museum, and guided tours of the working mine.
Visiting the Mine
The mine has one entrance and at first must be done with a guide. Once the tour starts, however, you can ditch the guide and finish the visit on your own. The first parts are quite boring, featuring only crosses carved out of salt. The most interesting thing you’ll see at the beginning is the sheer size of the caverns created to extract the salt. Beams of light are projected outward to show just how big these mines are.
Once you get to the cathedral itself, it becomes a little more interesting. One of these huge caverns was transformed into a cathedral. There are pews facing a giant cross in the altar, a carving of the Holy Family, and even a replica of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” carved into salt.
To the side of the cathedral is another huge cavern full of shops, a small theatre with a short 3D movie about the salt industry, and a restaurant. For anyone interested in buying certified Colombian emeralds, this is the place to do it. Emeralds are very cheap inside the mine because it is set up as a tax-free zone. Palacio de la Esmeralda are the wholesalers that operate the store and they have other locations in Bogotá.
Visiting this “First Wonder of Colombia” was a good experience but it was also a big tourist trap. It wasn’t as impressive as I had hoped. There’s a lot of hype behind it. Anyway, if you decide to visit it can be completed in about 90 minutes. It’s good to wear comfortable shoes and if you get cold easily, bring a jacket.
The Town of Zipaquirá
Outside of the mine in Zipaquirá, you’ll find a couple of nice plazas. The main plaza contains the city’s cathedral and is surrounded by colonial style buildings.
Plaza de la Independencia is a short walk from the main plaza. You can find many restaurants there and along the road to Catedral de Sal.
We ate lunch at Alma Llanera. It looked like a friendly and inviting place, but we ended up getting ripped off. The prices and quality of the picada (plate of assorted meats) was fair, but the chicken and fish were overpriced and overcooked. Try to avoid this place.
For a more in-depth look at the salt mining industry, visit nearby Nemocón. Buses run frequently between Nemocón and Zipaquirá at a cost of COP$2,650 (as of April 2015). The ride takes just under a half hour. You can get out of the bus near the entrance to the salt mine.
To get to Zipaquirá from Bogotá, take the Transmilenio to Portal del Norte and jump on a bus labeled for either town. The ride to Zipa is 45 minutes and costs COP$4,500 per person.
On the way back to Bogotá, you might want to stop for a fun dinner at Andrés Carne de Res in Chía.