Friday, July 31, 2009
I was workin’ in a salt mine.
We were up up and at ‘em early – the rest of the hostel was sound asleep. This was not surprising since we heard the last Brits come stumbling in at about 6am. We had breakfast and then headed into town in search of a bank machine that came out more than $150 at a time. At that rate the bank fees were killing us. Rumor (well, the lonely planet thorntree) had it that Citibank didn’t have ATM limits so we set out to find out the truth. We’d spotted a branch next to the gold museum which was next to the Transmilenio station we were headed to. We put the card in the machine punched some buttons and indeed we got out our limit, saving ourselves almost $20 in service charges. Now it was time to have some fun.
Today we were heading out of the city and underground to the salt cathedral. The salt what? You’re probably asking. Well, about an hour outside of Bogota there is a ginormous salt mine and inside that salt mine was a ginormous underground cathedral carved out of the salt. This was definitely something we hadn’t seen before and sounded ginormously interesting. According to the guy at the hostel it was easy to get there. We got on the Transmileno, the express bus, and headed to the Northern Bus Terminal. It took us about 45 minutes in rush hour traffic on the backed bus to get there. We were a bit disoriented getting off at the terminal, but as soon as my eyes focused I saw a bus driver waving to us. I looked up and realized we were standing right at the platform for the bus to Zipaquira. I love it when bus drivers know where us gringos want to go before we do. We got on and the bus took off down the highway out of town.
In another 45 mintues we reached Zipaquira and the bus driver waved us to get off at an intersection and then told us to head straight ahead and up the hill to get to the salt mine. But first – lunch. We walked to a Chinese place and ordered half portions and a soup for Adrian. But when the half portions came they were enough for two and the soup was a meal on it’s own and each came with a quarter chicken So Adrian and I split the chow mein, soup and one of the quarter chickens and took the other chicken and the fried rice home in a doggy bag which Adrian tried to call a “Bolsa de Perro” which confused the server greatly. Completely stuffed we waddled through the town in the direction the bus driver had told us. When we got to the main square we consulted the Lonely Planet for a bit more information. All it said was that the mines were a “15 minute walk uphill”. So we continued straight up the hill. And this wasn’t just any hill it was huge. Our legs and lungs were burning as we headed up. About ¾ of the way up we still saw no signs so Adrian popped into a tienda and tried to ask for directions. This consisted of him pretending to dig while making his generic sh-sh-sh sound effect. The woman responded but in Spanish, not the mime Adrian is fluent in, so I stepped in. But the news was bad – we had walked up the wrong hill. The woman told us to go back down to the square and go up the hill two hills over. Granted the view over the town was pretty up here but my legs wanted to give out with the news. Adrian stepped in and flagged down a taxi that drove us right to the gate.
Arriving at the entrance, we realized that the salt cathedral was a major tourist attraction and not a part of the actual mine. There were huge gates and a food court and even a children’s area. And there was also an array of ticket combos that had us scratching our head mostly because we didn’t know what some of the options were. We picked one and headed underground. The salt cathedral began as a miner’s chapel in the one of the largest (maybe the largest) salt mines in the world. But when it became a major tourist draw and someone realized that having so many tourists traipsing through an operating mine in an increasingly unstable area might be a little dangerous, they closed it and built a bigger more impressive cathedral with all the safety features.
The first part of our ticket combo was the cathedral itself reached by descending down a dark ramp. We could hear drilling coming from somewhere deep in the mine but these tunnels were far from the actual mining area. The path led to thirteen caverns dug out of the crystallized salt each corresponding to one of the stations of the cross. They were huge and lit up with eerie lights. It took me a dozen tries but I eventually figured out how to take pictures of them. The first couple were awesome but I have to admit they started to look all the same – big huge rocky caverns with coloured lights. Just after a domed area that reminded me of trips to the planetarium when I was a kid., we arrived at the entrance to the actual cathedral, The cathedral was amazing (photo above) but a bit anticlimactic after all the caverns. I wish we’d just gone straight there for the full wow factor. The subdued multicoloured lighting and classical music being pumped in from hidden speakers added to the eerieness. The light reflected off of the crystals highlighting statues and crosses carved out of other pieces of salt and it was quite beautiful. Although Adrian’s favourite part was something that looked like it was from the original star trek movie. Pictures were taken of him at the “bridge” saying beam me up Scotty, before we set off in search of the other parts of our tour.
Our next stop was the miner’s route which promised to give us a taste of the mine. We found the office but were told we had to see the 3D movie first. That was the one thing we didn’t want to do, but every ticket combo included it. So we weren’t too upset that it had already started, especially when we were handed some paper 3d glasses on our way in. The movie explained the mining process but the 3d effect was distracting and made it particularly hard to read the English subtitles. We didn’t really absorb much but since we were just biding our time until the miner’s tour, we didn’t care. It was over in 10 minutes, and we headed back to the miner’s route office. Now, we were surrounded by a crowd of 20 other tourists. The guide handed out hard hats with lamps and then took us through a locked door which lead below into the mining tunnels. Once she shut the door, the guide instructed us to turn off our lamps and navigate the tunnel in the dark. It was completely black and many of us (me included) turned on our lamps to avoid tripping over the people in front of us. Despite the tour being conducted in rapid-fire Colombian Spanish, it became clear that this was more of an experiential lecture than an actual tour into the operating mine. I think we learned about the sedimentary rocks and what their different colours meant. At one point she pointed out a sign for dangerous gasses in the rock but I never did catch what that was. Oops it sounded kinda important. Then we were taken to a fake mining area and told about the explosive process and allowed to use a pick axe to mine our own piece of rock salt. Others opted to take one the boulders with them as the salt supposedly has healing powers. We passed on the huge boulders and pocketed a couple of smaller pieces. The tour ended with a faked explosion involving sparklers, sfx from speakers and a smoke machine before we were herded out of the area. Fun but totally tacky.
The last part of our ticket let us into the museum. It described the mining and extraction process and the hands-on displays may have been fun if they hadn’t all been broken for many years. Despite the child-attendants attempts to give us a tour (seriously, they were pre-pubescent) and then watch a movie, we shook them off and zipped through. After all we’d already seen the coolest parts of the attraction and it was getting late. So we walked back down the hill through the pretty town and on the bus to Bogota.
By the time we got back downtown it was dark. It was also a little disorienting. The main street was closed and heaving with people. And for a moment I wondered if there was a protest, except for the music and applause. It was some sort of giant street party, with hundreds of street performers entertaining the hundreds of thousands of people in the crowd. We milled through the crowd and saw small bands, djs, human statues, jugglers, acrobats, experimental theatre performances before heading back to the hostel.
When we walked in we were greeted by a familiar face it was Cartagena Geoff back in town before his flight to Lima. We hung out and caught up over drinks. He and a few others tried to convince us to sample some of Bogota’s fabulous nightlife but besides being old farts, our wardrobe wasn’t going to get us into even the worst clubs or bars in this city. We had to pass. Plus we were heading out early the next morning and we needed our sleep. Oh well I’m sure we’ll meet up again somewhere.