Catedral de Sal—underground church in an active salt mine

My last post presented evidence that Colombia’s Eastern Cordillera was covered by a shallow sea during the Cretaceous Period: This post presents more evidence for an oceanic setting—thick salt layers that were deposited in a shallow sea where high rates of evaporation caused water to evaporate and salt crystals to build up many layers over time.

Zipaquirá salt mine

A major salt mine is located in the town of Zipaquirá, located about 45 km (27 miles) north of Bogotá. Indigenous people began mining the salt thousands of years ago, and when Europeans arrived, they also extracted this valuable resource. Mining continues today, but with advanced equipment that provides safer conditions for the miners. Most of the salt is for industrial uses. For example, salt sets the dye in fabric and is used to produce glass, polyester, plastics, and leather.

Here I am in the salt mine with our guide Andrés, who helped us understand how the mine functions and how the church built within it operates. We are standing in a tunnel excavated from the layers of salt visible in the tunnel walls.
Here is a block of salt with visible salt crystals. The salt is halite (NaCl)—common table salt. Because the salt was deposited in shallow parts of the ocean, there are impurities from land-derived mud and brackish marine organisms. The darker-colored components are pyrite (iron-sulfide mineral) and carbon. Pyrite forms in oxygen-poor environments (e.g., shallow-marine mud) where decaying organic material consumes oxygen and releases sulfur. Carbon is from the organic material. Another component is dolomite (a marine carbonate), but most of the white minerals are halite.
As a sedimentologist, I’m always excited to see rock layers that show how sediments accumulated over time. These salt deposits are white, but artificial light casts color on the walls. The salt was deposited as flat layers, but during the past 70 million years, compressive forces caused the land to be uplifted to its current elevation of ~2650 m (8690 ft). The compressive forces folded the rocks, so they are now tilted rather than flat.

A church built in the mine

In earlier times, mining was a more dangerous profession and during the 1930s the miners placed images of saints in the walls of the underground mine, and prayed to them for safety. Funding was eventually provided to build a church that shared space with the existing mine. Years of blasting and drilling weakened the church’s walls and caused it to close in 1992. The church was rebuilt with public and private funds and it reopened again in 1995 at a deeper level (180 m / 600 ft) that is farther from the area of active mining.

The “Catedral de Sal” (salt church) is a notable achievement of Colombian architecture. It is one of the most popular tourist and pilgrimage sites in Colombia. About 3,000 Catholic parishioners gather here each Sunday for religious services.

Off of the main nave are smaller chapels such as this one. With the white light, it is easier to see how the tunnels were carved from the salt layers.
Here is one more image of the underground tunnels cut into salt deposits. Maria and I are standing in the center of the railing on the other side of water just 1 cm deep! It is a perfect mirror that tricked us at first—it really looked like the tunnel continued deep beneath us. We decided that the Catedral de Sal was a much more impressive place to visit than we had expected.

Back to Bogotá

We only had two days in Bogotá, but we saw enough to make me want to return and learn more. Other parts of Colombia entice me to return—for example, Parque Nacional Los Nevados, the site of Colombia’s active volcanoes, and Cali, called the “Salsa Capital” because of its street parties and dance. I’ll end my Colombian post with some scenes from Bogotá.

A view westward over the city of Bogotá from our lodging in La Candelaria.
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  1. Jolene on April 8, 2023 at 9:20 am

    Thanks for sharing about the Catedral de Sal. What a beautiful and unique cathedral and worship experience. Hard to imagine 3,000 people worshiping there on one day. Is there much of a descent to the church? Interesting the name “salt church”. Jesus said those that follow him should be the salt of the world.

    • Landscapes Revealed on April 8, 2023 at 3:29 pm

      The descent is gradual until you reach the stairs down into the main sanctuary. Interesting “salt of the world” idea! Apparently there is another salt church in a mine in Poland.

  2. Lisa Zingarelli on April 8, 2023 at 11:34 am

    Wow! That is truly spectacular! Thanks, Karen for another incredible post.

    • Landscapes Revealed on April 8, 2023 at 3:25 pm

      Thanks Lisa!

  3. Isabel on April 8, 2023 at 5:32 pm

    Terrific! The carvings, church and the mine itself, amazing – thanks!

    • Landscapes Revealed on April 8, 2023 at 7:43 pm

      Glad you liked it Isabel!

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