To an Underground Salt Cathedral on Locomotive #76

Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
Trip End Aug 18, 2010

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Saturday, March 17, 2007

The ancient narrow-guage steam locomotive wheezes its cloud of smoke and steam as it slowly grinds to a halt upon its arrival at the slightly dilapidated station in Zipaquira.  And the passengers excitedly disembark off the 14 "Smarties" colored carriages that provide a momentary escape from Bogota's modern reality.

It's 11:30am on a holiday Monday, and the last passenger train left in Colombia has plied the 50 kms from Bogota in about 3 hours.  No one minds the fact that at an average speed of 17 km/h they probably could have cycled to their destination in less time.  Everyone understands that getting their is half the fun.  It's a day to break away from monotony, the kids have been imagining sticking their heads out of the tren window for weeks, parents have called up extended family to come along for the ride, and at 28 000 pesos return per person (USD $13), all have been eager to exit the Colombian capital and head into the wonderful surrounding countryside for a day.  Fresh farm pastures in between rolling Andean heights, dairy cows grazing by the tracks, fresh cut flower greenhouses, are all presented from a vantage point far more comfortable than that of a diesel spewing bus on the nearby highway.

The passengers are impressed to find out that there is even live entertainment on board to alter the mood.  On one end of the train, a lively band consisting of a trombone, clarinet, saxophones, drummer and singer with his portable PA system strike up tunes along the center aisle of the carriages, working their way down the train looking for smiles and claps in agreement to their rhythm.  It brings everyone back to a previous century when the Colombian railroad also regularly transported people in addition to cargo from the Andean heights all the way to the coast.  And to connect the travellers to the nation's indigenous heritage, an Andean band complete with guitar, pan-pipe, and drum match their melodies to the culture and folklore of their peoples.  For a moment, you can feel the musicians tugging at sympathetic strings because the setting is just too perfect...the whistle of the engine, the views of the Andes, the rocking of the carriage, and the native sounds emitted from the pan-pipe. 

A short stop along the way gives all a chance to step out and admire locomotive #76.  The brass band jumps off as well, and the mood they master continues in the sun, along the tracks beside the train.  Fathers with their video cams bolt toward the engine and capture the efforts of the crew who fill the tender with water from the station's reservoir tank, and grease up the locomotive's parts with slick green lubricants.  A closer look inside the engineer's control area reveals the 100's of valves and pipes that he must coordinate to force the high pressured steam in the right balance for optimal forward motion.  A mother points out to her keen child the fireman, who shovels a few loads of coal into the engine´s inferno, before the engineer pulls the steam whistle generating a shocking pitch into the air; the signal for all to return to their coaches.


And in the restaurant car, as the train regains top speed, the crew gets busy once again along the final stretch to Zipaquira. Hot tamales are passed out from the kitchen to vendors that balance their trays and traverse across the gaps of each carriage towards the hands of snacking patrons. Aguila cerveza cans are pulled from the fridge and sold to indulging customers who prefer the passing views from the tables in this carriage rather than their seats.

And what is the attraction, sitting on a steam engine for 3 hours destined for a simple town in central Colombia?  Well, a geology lesson would begin to explain the surprise that lies deep beneath the hills above the town.  Over 200 million years ago, this and other parts of South America were entirely covered by the ocean.  The region is rich in marine fossil deposits, providing solid proof of this fact.  And during this time, enormous quantities of salt were laid down and deposited, only to be covered over by new layers of strata when the oceans eventually dried out.  Then, millions of years later, the salt deposits were raised above sea level by the same tectonic forces that created the Andes Mountain Range.  These salt deposits were eventually discovered by the Muisca Indians and were consequently mined extensively well before the Spanish conquest about 500 years ago.  Salt is still being extracted from the underground mines for both commercial and domestic grade NaCl. 


The Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira  is an underground Church built in the tunnels of old salt mines.  It exists 300 mts inside a salt mountain above the town. There are what appear to be miles of tunnels from where the salt has been extracted, and engineers have creatively converted some of the space (75m long x 18 m high) into a Catholic sanctuary large enough to accommodate 8400 people!  The construction of the project was begun in 1950.  However, as the cathedral was carved inside an active mine, structural problems and safety concerns led the authorities to shut down the sanctuary in 1990.  In 1991 the construction of a new Cathedral was undertaken, 200 feet under the older one. This new Cathedral was opened in 1995.


Our visit included an hour long guided tour down into the long shaft that lead to the dark depths of the mountain, where we were given an in-depth explanation of the symbolism behind the religious constructions, and interesting tidbits about salt mining.  Every now and then we´d wipe our finger on a wall and lick the rock salt, to determine for sure that every surface around us was indeed the salt of the earth.  Along the way, we passed large caverns with carvings of crosses that represent the 14 stages of Jesus' last journey.  And although the religious significance evaded our interests, the cathedral itself is quite impressive with very high ceilings, carved pillars, and stunning acoustics. 

Mass is held there each Sunday, as is the occasional concert.  In fact, we learned that a charity concert for underprivileged children was held in the cathedral in 2006.  However, it was no ordinary concert.  Our guide explained that during the annual whale migration off Ecuador´s Pacific Coast, researchers attached microphones to the creatures and coordinated an impressive live symphony of the whales.  Their sounds were piped into the underground cathedral 100s of kms away from the sea, and echoed throughout the cavernous structure.  Astonishing!

Running out of time for our return trip on the train back to Bogota, we grabbed a medio pollo (half chicken) to go (basically the chicken, and 4 small baked potatoes dumped in a white plastic bag) and hopped on a minibus to the departure station.  With 20 minutes to spare, we chowed down out of our plastic take away bags and hopped on for our 3 hour ride back to the capital.  Apart from a momentary stop to extinguish an out-of-control grass fire that was approaching the tracks, the crew of El Turistren, brought us back from the countryside and railed us through the city to the La Sabana station by early evening.  Throughout its course, our train engaged anyone that happened to witness its path through the city.  With its old coal steam engine and colorful carriages, anyone on the streets would stop to wave and examine the strange transport from the ages passing through their metropolis, and you could tell that some of them were enticed to perhaps plan a weekend or holiday with their families on board Locomotive 76.


- Visit the Turistren website for more info:
- The Train only runs on weekends and holidays, so you may need to plan when you arrive in Bogota.
- Tickets for the Tourist Train (Turistren in Spanish) need to be bought 1 day in advance. You can take the TransMillenio to the La Sabana station, where you can purchase tickets (Return trip, 28 000 pesos). The train leaves at 8:30am and arrives in Zipaquira approx. 3 hours later.  It returns to Bogota at about 5:30pm.
- Entrance to the Salt Cathedral is 12 000 pesos, 6000 pesos for Students.
- If you want to spend more time at the Salt Cathedral, don´t fall for the tourist trap and jump onto the minibuses waiting to haul everyone around together. It's a beautiful walk through the town, and then you can make your own way back to the town of Cajica where the train is waiting for its departure back to Bogota. Minibuses from Zipaquira to Cajica can be found on the main highway.  The train station in Cajica is not easy to find as it sits in the centre of the town.  Make sure your minibus driver knows where to let you off as Cajica is rather large.

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