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Colombia's Salt Cathedral is a pillar of spiritual strength

Special To The Washington Post

"Guests, welcome to my home."

With more poetry than precision, our guide Johamn Bohorquez introduced himself to his morning tour. Instead of the door to a home, we stood in front of the dimly lit entrance to a mine shaft, ready to begin a mile-long walk through a mountain of salt.

Hollowed out of the middle of this mountain and 600 feet below our feet lay our destination: the magnificent Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, one of the most popular tourist and pilgrimage sites in Colombia, where as many as 3,000 Catholic faithful gather each Sunday for religious services in a former salt mine.

The lively group ready to follow Bohorquez into the gloom represented two families, one American, one Colombian, about to be united by marriage. In four days, my youngest son, Drew, would marry Bogota native Diana Moreno Ochoa. Determined to enjoy as much of Colombia as we could, 19 family members and friends had made the 32-mile trip north from Bogota, in a rented bus, to the picturesque town of Zipaquira and its Catedral de Sal.

Bohorquez led us through a turnstile and down into the darkness. Every few feet, thick metal beams, covered with a heavy layer of protective red paint, ran up from the floor and overhead and then down to the floor on the other side of the wide passageway. Eucalyptus logs lay across these metal arches; together, they held back the mountain 10 feet above our heads.

For about 100 feet, small floodlights embedded in the floor next to the walls set the crimson-red arches ablaze in the dim light. The effect was striking, if not a bit unnerving: The entrance to the Salt Cathedral looked more like the gateway to hell than a pathway to heaven.

"Further down, no bracing is needed; the salt has fused into solid rock" known to geologists as halite, or rock salt, Bohorquez tells us.

The passageway slopes down past a series of room-size chambers where miners had dug out salt rock on either side of the tunnel. We are following the Way of the Cross. For three years, 127 artists and craftspeople from in and around Bogota labored to repurpose 14 of these cavities into rough-hewed devotional chapels. Each chamber represents a key event that occurred on the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took to his crucifixion.

Some of the most famous Colombian artists are represented in the cathedral. Among my favorite pieces was a charming figure of a baby Jesus who had clearly been working out ("See the six-pack?" Bohorquez chuckled) and 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. All three figures have indigenous features.

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"My visitors, come here," Bohorquez said. "This is the first station made in this cathedral." In this chamber, polished blocks of solid rock salt, each the size of a small filing cabinet, faced a carved salt cross. "These objects are called in situ prayer stools," he said. A shallow bench had been carved into blocks so that faithful Catholics could kneel and rest their hands on the top of the stools.

"My guests, if you want to taste this, you can do it," Bohorquez said.

I rose to the challenge. Pushing aside thoughts of how many others had placed their tongues on this rock, I leaned down and licked one of the salt blocks. The intensity of the taste surprised me.

Bohorquez said that the salt that I had just tasted was 135 million years old, a relic of the vast Tethys Ocean that once covered this area.

The indigenous Muisca people first discovered these salt deposits more than six centuries ago. Spanish conquistadors searching for El Dorado in the 16th century stumbled across the salt mountain. "Instead of a city of gold, they discovered a city of salt," Luis Alfonso Rodríguez Valbuena, Zipaquira's personable mayor, said during a brief interview in his office.

Successions of adventurers, plunderers and entrepreneurs followed. Salt from these mines paid the bills for the military campaigns of the liberators Simón Bolívar and Antonio Nariño, who brought independence to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, Rodriguez said.

Today, the salt mountain finances roads and parks. The cathedral is the main source of government revenue for this city of 124,000, Rodriguez said. In the past year, 600,000 people visited the 79-acre cathedral park, which is jointly owned by the city and private interests.

The story of the Salt Cathedral begins in the 1930s. Miners carved out a makeshift chapel in the mine tunnel. There, they prayed for their safety each day before starting work.

From that humble beginning arose the first cathedral, consecrated in 1954 as a shrine to the patron saint of local miners, the Virgin of the Rosary of Guasa. The cathedral shared space with a working salt mine, with predictably calamitous results. Years of blasting, jackhammering and drilling weakened the cathedral walls, forcing authorities to close it in 1992 before the whole thing came crashing down.

A government company, dipping into $1 million in public and private funds, built a new cathedral in a deeper level of the mine that had been exhausted. This cathedral opened for services and for visitors in 1995. (Truth in labeling: The Salt Cathedral is not a true cathedral, as it is not the seat of a bishop.)

It still shares the mountain with a working salt mine located several hundred feet below the sanctuary complex. Today, water has replaced dynamite as the salt miner's tool of choice. A freshwater bath dissolves the halite; the resulting brine is pumped to the surface and the salt is removed through evaporation.

That's not to say that the latest version of the cathedral is forever. In one chamber Bohorquez points to a triangle formed by the heads of three bolts drilled into the ground.

The space between these bolts is carefully monitored. Researchers found that the weight of the mountain is closing the cathedral in on itself at a rate of six millimeters a year, he said.

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We walk deeper into the old mine. To our right, a steep set of stairs descends down a dark side tunnel. "The place here is called the 'Penitent Stairs,' " and is an exit from the main cathedral, Bohorquez said. "When you go up the stairs and feel tired and exhausted, that means you have many, many sins."

A short way down, the Way of the Cross ends. We have reached our destination: the vast central nave of the Catedral de Sal.

"My guests, this beautiful place is the cupola or dome of the cathedral," Bohorquez said. The chamber, more than 250 feet deep and 30 feet wide, soars more than 70 feet above our heads.

The rough walls are partially bathed in purplish-blue light. Our guide directs our attention to the front of the nave, where a glowing, 50-foot-tall cross seems to float in space before the dark rock wall. But it's no salt-mine miracle. The cross is chiseled into the wall. Concealed lighting illuminates the recessed channels. "You see it as three dimensions [but the effect is] created by the lights," Bohorquez said.

Our group reluctantly leaves the central nave to begin the long walk to the surface. Off to the right, the Penitent Stairs ascend sharply into the gloom, daring me to test the condition of my body and the state of my soul.

I am gasping for breath when I reach the top. Apparently, both body and soul are lacking.

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Morin is a writer based in the Washington. Find him on Twitter: @richmorin.

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Where to stay

Hotel Camino de la Sal

Carrera 4 No. 5-03

011-57-1-851-6159

hotelcaminodelasal.com/nosotros

Understated elegance and a central location make this the hotel of choice for many visitors to Zipaquira. It's three blocks from the city's central square, a block away from the Plaza de la Independencia and a 15-minute (uphill) walk to the cathedral. The hotel features 34 rooms, starting at $43 a night.

Hospederia Boutique El Libertador

50 Metros Arriba De La Entrada De La Mina

011-57-300-814-6694

hospederiaellibertador.com/web

A short walk up the mountain from the cathedral entrance, this boutique hotel has six rooms. Each one celebrates a different South American historical figure. (Two are women.) Ask for a room with access to the balcony and enjoy the view of Zipaquira from your high mountain perch. Rooms cost $84 a night; breakfast for two is also included.

Where to eat

Casa Del Chorro

Calle 5 No. 5-32, Independence Square, Zipaquira

011-57-1-851-3874

casadelchorro.com/noticias.php

Casual Colombian dining and international cuisine are offered in this restored colonial house a block away from Plaza de la Independencia and a half-mile walk from the cathedral. Try the ribs or Pechugona relleno de mozzarella y jamon - a chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese. Entrees cost $10 or less.

La Komilona de Andres

Carrera 6 Nos. 3 - 48, Plaza de La Independencia

011 -57-1-851-6554

lakomilonadeandres.com/index.php

This welcoming restaurant in the heart of the old city prides itself on its authentic Colombian menu. Sample Sobrebarriga en Salsa Criolla - flank steak in a Colombian Creole sauce - or Lomo de Cerdo a la Parrilla - grilled pork tenderloin - and spend less than $10.

Restaurante Arepa's World Catedral De Sal

Calle 1 Carrera 6 Plazoleta de Comidas

011-57-312-583-1244

Located a few blocks from the cathedral, it's the place for a great cup of coffee, arepas (fried corn cakes) and other fast food dishes. You can get a great breakfast or lunch and not spend $5, or a cup of coffee and an arepa for just a few dollars.

What to do

Transfers & Tours

011-57-1-301-547-2841

transferstours.com/web/producto/zipaquira

The tour includes entrance to the Salt Cathedral, transportation and a "typical" Colombian lunch. (Expect grilled meat, sausages and potato products.) The company will pick you up at your hotel. If you can't get enough of abandoned salt mines, it also offers a tour to the former salt mine in Nemocon. Both tours start at $58; there's a 10 percent discount for cash. From $58 a person.

Tours of Colombia

Diagonal 30 No. 14-30, Bogota

011-57-1-313-844-8404

toursofcolombia.com

Five-hour tours from Bogota to the Salt Cathedral cost $89 per person for groups of two or more and $119 for one person, with a 50 percent discount for children 7 and younger. A longer tour takes visitors to the Salt Cathedral and Lake Guatavita, which reputedly is a source of the legend of El Dorado, the mythical "city of gold." It's $119 per person for groups of two or more and $170 for one person.

Salt Cathedral

Parque De La Sal, Zipaquira, Cundinamarca

011-57-1-851-9502

catedraldesal.gov.co

The cathedral sits in the middle of a hilly, 79-acre park dedicated to salt mining. Attractions include the Museo de la Salmuera (the Museum of Brine) that features geologic displays and depictions of the salt mining process. The guided cathedral tour takes about two hours. At the end, two chambers lead into two theaters. One theater shows a movie describing the history and geology of the salt mountain and cathedral, while the second features an LED light show in which colorful images of Colombia are displayed on the ceiling. Admission for foreign visitors costs about $17; tickets for seniors and children ages 4 to 12 cost about $12.

Information: colombia.travel/en and catedraldesal.gov.co

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