Last Updated on September 27, 2020
Nestled more than 650 feet underground in the city of Zipaquirá, Colombia is an unlikely tourist destination: a salt mine turned cathedral, complete with a 50-foot high glowing cross. What began as a small altar where 1800’s miners prayed for their safety has become an enormous chapel with seating for 8,000 Sunday worshippers. Not to mention daily tours for pilgrims and tourists eager to visit the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral in Colombia.
Equal parts tourist trap and architectural marvel, the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral is a cool addition to your Bogotá itinerary. If you’ve got an extra day and want to escape the bustle of the city, I’ve got all the details on planning a visit. Including how to get to Zipaquira, the history of the mine, and what to see at Colombia’s salt cathedral.
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How to Get to Zipaquira
30 miles (45km) north of Colombia’s vibrant capital of Bogota, you’ll find the colonial town of Zipaquira in the district of Cundinamarca. You can get there from Bogota via bus in about two hours, or via train in about 3 hours. Check the bus and train routes here on Rome2Rio.
If you plan to stay in Zipaquira or get there via bus or train, you can buy tickets online ahead of time and skip the line.
If you’re pressed for time, though, the easiest and fastest way to get to the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral is with a day tour from Bogota.
Day Tour Considerations
On my first visit to Colombia less than a year ago, I struggled to find reasonably-priced tours with good online ratings. During my second visit, I discovered that their tour business is now booming. Unfortunately, the reviews and prices are still hit-or-miss! But don’t worry: I’ve got a few Zipaquira tour recommendations for you.
One thing to note is that most Zipaquira tours are really just transport with a driver, either private or shared with a small group. Check to be sure that the tour you select includes entrance fees, or you’ll need to pay for an entrance ticket.
Many Zipaquira tours from Bogota also include another stop, such as Lake Guatavita (the likely source of the El Dorado legend) or a local lunch, which you might need to pay for separately.
Recommended Salt Cathedral Day Tours
Click the link for each of the options below to check pricing and availability for your dates:
Affordable Zipaquira tour: This tour is one of the cheaper options, especially for solo travelers. Getting to the departure location yourself will save you a little more off the ticket price. Just be sure to stick to the schedule since it’s a group tour!
Salt Cathedral tour with local lunch: This private tour has an early departure time to beat the crowds, good recent reviews, and local lunch included. They’ll also do private tours for solo travelers.
Salt Cathedral tour with stop in town: This tour has good recent reviews both on Viator and TripAdvisor.
Zipaquira tour with Lake Guatavita: This private tour option includes all entrance fees and lunch.
Salt Cathedral with Guatavita Lake and Andres Carne de Res restaurant: I actually did this tour, and thought it was too much to pack into one day! We got a late start due to traffic, plus some other mishaps made for a long day. I’m only recommending this one if you really want to see all three of these stops.
Zipaquira Salt Mine History
The story of Zipaquira starts with the formation of salt deposits there 250 million years ago from an inland sea. Fast forward to pre-Columbian times and the Muisca people, one of the four advanced civilizations in the Americas. (Along with the Aztec, Maya and Incas). As early as the 5th century BCE, they began mining salt as one of their main economic and trade activities.
Traditional mining practices continued into the 1800’s, when European mining methods were introduced. As output increased, the mining job became more dangerous. So local miners started praying before heading deep into the mine each day. By 1932, generations of miners had carved out a small chapel where they would pray to Our Lady of the Rosary of Guasa, the patron saint of miners, every morning.
In the 1950’s the mine decided to expand the chapel, which opened in 1953 with a large worship space and basilica dome. But years of sharing the space with an active mine eventually led to structural problems. The original cathedral was closed in 1990 amid safety concerns.
Construction of the Current Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral)
Plans to build a new cathedral began the following year. A contest for the design was won by architect Roswell Garavito Pearl. More than 250 thousand tons of rock salt had to be extracted, and the new cathedral was built 200 feet beneath the old one. Miners, sculptors and craftspeople were brought in to bring the design to life, which reopened in December of 1995.
Visiting the Salt Cathedral of Colombia
It takes about two hours to explore the cathedral itself. Keep in mind that you’ll need to walk back out following the same path you followed on the tour. So be sure to budget at least 20-30 minutes to get back to the entrance.
Also, don’t forget to pick up electronic audio guides at the entrance, unless you join a tour with a human guide. I recommend this, as the audio tour is limited.
Main Sights of the Cathedral
The entrance to the Salt Cathedral feels like a working mine. The air gets stuffier and slightly sulfur-smelling as you descend underground into the tunnels. In the first section of the cathedral, known as the “Way of the Cross,” are 14 small chapels hewn out of salt. These are meant to represent the 14 stations of the cross, or Jesus’s final activities on the day of his crucifixion. There are small altars where people can kneel to pray in each. (Since I’m not Catholic and we didn’t have a guide, it took me a few stations to figure out what they were.) The lighting in each pulses and changes color.
Some of the chapels overlook different parts of the mine, which are still active excavations. Eventually, the Way of the Cross ends and you find yourself in the three naves, complete with seating in pews. The main nave, lit in purple and blue, features a staggering 50-foot cross. The sculptures throughout the cathedral are sandstone, since halite is too soft to carve, with the exception of a halite bust of Pope Francis in the main nave.
I was honestly surprised to see that some of the areas of the Salt Cathedral indicated they were wheelchair-accessible.
This tour requires a considerable amount of walking. The floor inside the cathedral is uneven, and includes stairs and ramps.
After the tour finishes, you have to walk back out the same way you went in. There is no separate exit at the end of the tour. I got over 10,000 steps that day, but my tour also included a hike at Guatavita Lake.
I was excited to get to the end of the tour, since I hoped to find a salt nativity for my collection of world nativity sets. I was not disappointed and could have bought at least a dozen! There’s a large souvenir area at the end of the tour, as well as in the outdoor plaza.
To further increase tourism, the cathedral has been expanded into a Salt Park, with a museum of mining and mineralogy. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit the clumbing wall. Or the “Brine Museum,” to learn about the exciting process of extracting salt from halite. But perhaps you will!
There are cafes and restaurants, and most tickets include a 3D movie at the end of the salt cathedral tour.
City of Zipaquira
Zipaquira has a central square, with old buildings and a (non-salt) cathedral in the Spanish colonial style. In the nearby Abra Valley were found some of the most ancient human remains in South America, dating to around 12,500 years old.
Sunday Services at Zipaquira Salt Cathedral
Zipaquira Cathedral is an active church with services every Sunday. However, it isn’t a formally recognized cathedral, since it isn’t the seat of a Roman Catholic bishop. It can get crowded on Sundays and especially during holy days like Semana Santa because of services; check with tour operators or the Salt Cathedral website for more information on hours.
Colombians are proud of this site, and have named it the First Wonder of Colombia. But more than that, it’s significant as a historical site of the most advanced original civilizations in the Americas. An estimated 600,000 tourist visit Zipaquira annually.
Where to Stay in Bogota
Need tips on where to stay in Bogota? If you’re visiting for the first time, I recommend staying in the La Candelaria neighborhood.
La Candelaria is the historical center of town, and you can easily walk to all of Bogota’s main sights and museums.
Looking for more Bogota tips? Don’t miss my guide to the best things to do in Bogota!
Build an itinerary for one day to one week of the best things to to in Bogota, Colombia: explore its history, museums, and vibrant graffiti & food culture, plus tips on the best day trips in the surrounding area!