Salty Jesus

By Colin McFadden
This post is part of a series called Colombia 2017
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Two days in one, on account of a lack of internet.

Before our trip, we connected with a friend of a friend who lives in Bogotá.  Colombians are impossibly friendly and welcoming to guests, and Ximena was no different. She invited us to spend a night at her family’s country house near Zipaquirá.  Zipaquirá had already been on our “maybe” list for a day trip, as it’s home to the Salt Cathedral.  Having a friend in the area sealed the deal.

Ximena arranged for us to get to Zipaquirá on the Tourist Train (that’s its real name).  At one point, Colombia had an extensive train network, but now the only passenger train in operation is the Tren Turistico, which only runs on Saturdays and Sundays.  It’s a semi-restored train, which makes a lot of noise, and goes very slowly.  On Sundays, it’s even pulled by a steam engine!

The train ride takes about three hours.  It was packed with Colombian families having a day out.  Groups of musicians wander the train, and the snack vendors bring tamales and hot chocolate.  The train also provided a great glimpse into daily Colombia.  Bogotá is a sprawling city, so it takes a long time to be “out” (more of a gradual falloff). Along the way, we passed tons of great graffiti, animals of all shapes and sizes, and lots of new construction.  The train is enough of a novelty that at every crossing, people were out with their phones to film it going by.

We got to Zipaquirá around 11 and made the quick hike to the entrance of the Salt Cathedral.  This turned out to be an unexpected highlight for a number of reasons.  The Salt Cathedral is, as one might expect, a cathedral carved out of salt, in a salt mine.  It’s an active mine, still extracting 400 tons of salt per day.  The cathedral was originally carved by miners for their own use, and gradually became a tourist attraction.  The current cathedral was constructed in the 90s, after the first one became unsafe.

The entrance to the mine is part of a large complex with ziplines, eco walks, restaurants, and more.  We were able to join an English language tour of the mine – our group was tiny (perhaps 10 people) compared to the sprawling groups on the Spanish-language tours.

We’d seen pictures of the mine in our guidebook, but they were all beautifully staged and without people.  We had no sense of scale for the place.  It’s a genuine cathedral – massive, spread across multiple levels of the mine, and with a whole underground support system.  You begin the tour with the stations of the cross, before descending and entering the cathedral itself.  The cathedral features a narthex and three massive halls representing the birth, life and resurrection of Jesus.

The rock salt itself is stunning with swirling patterns on every surface. Of course, since salt is water soluble, one of the biggest structural hazard to the mine is humidity – there are orange reference markers on the walls to help engineers monitor the movement of the salt. The entrance tunnels to the mine are lined with eucalyptus wood, the water from which causes salt crystals to precipitate out forming sparkling stalactites. The biggest hazard for the miners themselves is the sulfurous gases that are associated with the rock salt deposits. Methane and sulfur gas are both toxic and flammable. The the distinctive smell of sulfur was detectable but the tourist area is well ventilated.

Simply being in the massive caverns with their swirling, glittering surfaces was awe inspiring. Less awe inspiring were the neon lights and rows of souvenir shops beyond the cathedral. We opted out of the 3D movie and the laser light show but the cathedral was certainly worth the visit nonetheless.

After the tour of the cathedral we poked around Zipaquirá. A stray dog adopted Colin and followed us on our wanderings. Kat of course bought a block of salt to take home and carve. Someday…

We were then picked up by Ximena’s little sister Milena and her friend Mateo. We enjoyed a bouncy ride up into the mountains and were surrounded by soft green slopes, steep cliffs and friendly cows. Lunch was at a friend’s house – we never really figured out how they knew each other.  We had a version of Ajiaco (potato and chicken soup) along with fresh juices and avocados.  Then we wandered the property, which includes a small stream, and gorgeous views.  We also met all the dogs, including the world’s fattest golden retriever.

After lunch, a young neighbor, Esteban, stopped by to see what was up.  His mom had cooked our soup.  Esteban is 7, and full of energy.  He suckered us all into a game of soccer, which was surprisingly competitive.  Esteban’s team ended up winning (I’d like to claim that we let him), and we were all ready to pass out.  Soccer at 11,000 feet is a challenge!

It was dark by the time we went to the family home.  It’s a small country house, built within the last few years, looking over a stunning valley.  Arriving home, we also met Martín, Ximena’s dog.  He’s 13 and has some health problems, but mostly he just wants to be snuggled, all the time.  We started a fire in the fireplace, made some simple sandwiches, and played a Sorry-esq boardgame until bedtime.

The next morning the sun was shining so fiercely that Kat insisted on sunscreen before breakfast. Ximena and Milena prepared a lovely breakfast including fresh papaya and chocolate con queso. After a pleasantly slow morning watching swallows, petting Martín and painting, we headed to Tenjo for lunch. Milena insisted on dessert first – our kind of lady! – so we shared chocolate cake and apple cinnamon cake. We then had a toritilla-esque fried green plantain covered in guacamole, fried pork belly, and a plate of red beans, rice, avocado and egg.  Whew.  Colombians know how to eat.

We made the final drive back to Bogotá, sleepy from our meal, and said our goodbyes to our new friends.  We drove through some intense rain, but the sun was shining in Bogotá.  We sprawled around the apartment for a bit, enjoying the view and catching up on the world.  Then we set out to explore “Zona Rosa,” a district to the north of our apartment.

Zona Rosa is the “fancy, nightlife district”.  Arriving there, we immediately remembered that we are not fancy nightlife people.  We poked around the upscale shopping mall, and then called an Uber to get to somewhere a little more our speed – La Candelaria.

We decided to head to El Gato Gris for dinner.  Mauricio had recommended it on our tour as a place to check out.  It turned out to be a good recommendation.  The space sprawls across a few old buildings, with three levels and lots of small quiet rooms.  A band was playing in the middle courtyard and we had a fantastic waitress who tolerated our poor Spanish with a lot of laughs.

We’ve now fully experienced Colombian hospitality, and it is indeed everything we were told.  We can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!


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