Our first visitors arrived in mid-January. My mother-in-law and two of my younger sisters-in-law landed in Bogotá just a day after we received our household effects shipment. Lucky for me, because this shipment contained a lot of items I wanted for having guests – including two extra mattresses! Also lucky for me, we had decided not to ship many of our belongings and with Rosa’s help, 99% of it was put away before our visitors arrived.
We wanted to visit Lake Guatavita and the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, so taking our guests was the perfect opportunity. We hired an English-speaking driver with a 8-passenger SUV to take the six of us on this excursion.The driver opted to take us on the scenic route over the mountains and past La Calera. I had not yet left Bogotá and I couldn’t believe the beautiful countryside we drove through, as well as the variety of traffic – cyclists, cars, trucks, horses, and more.
We arrived at the visitor’s entrance for Guatavita just as it started sprinkling. It didn’t rain for long, but we were glad to have rain jackets for the time it did.
Lake Guatavita is a forest-fringed crater that was a sacred spot for the Musica people. The legends say that the Muisca people had various rituals involving throwing gold into the lake, inspiring the legend of El Dorado. I read that every time they appointed a new chief, he was covered in gold dust, sailed to the middle of the lake, and jumped in. They have a model of this raft in the Gold Museum. Apparently Spaniard conquistadors attempted to find gold artifacts in the lake – and even tried unsuccessfully to drain the lake.
The guides are only in Spanish, so if you don’t speak Spanish, you either have to pretend to be interested or bring a translator, as several international visitors did during our visit.
Gray, in charge of our daughter who was about 14 months old, went ahead of the group and climbed to the top first. Our daughter did great in the carrier, although we did let her get down and walk part of the hike when she got impatient. I guess it goes without saying, but this is not stroller friendly! 😉
Upon finishing the hike, we drove on towards Zipaquirá, eating our packed lunch in the car. At the end of the hike, there are Colombian families eager to feed you traditional Colombian foods if you are hungry.
Price: Entrance and guide are a few dollars, around $15,000 COP.
Tips: Call ahead to make sure the roads to the lake are open. Sometimes they are closed for construction. Also, when mapping directions, ensure you are looking for the lake and not the town because although they are close (and the town is worth visiting according to others I have read) they are NOT the same. The lake is farther north.
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is an abandoned salt mine that has been turned into a tourist attraction and Catholic pilgrimage site. I have read that while Mass is celebrated here, no bishop is associated with the church and so it does not have official status as a cathedral.
Originally, a cathedral was carved by miners who would pray for safety before beginning work each day. It became structurally unsound after many years and was closed in the early 1990’s. The cathedral you visit today was built about 200 feet below the first one.
When you first enter, you’ll be overcome with the smell of sulfur, but don’t worry – it goes away. An area called the Salt Lick is immediately after the entrance. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. And no, I opted not to lick the walls that thousands have tasted before me.
First you pass through the Stations of the Cross, each one symbolizing a different moment in between Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion. Each one has stone kneelers available, although many people simply admire the cross and continue. Both times I have visited, I have been chasing a toddler, so my experience was less than spiritual.
After finishing the Stations of the Cross, you have the opportunity to view the cathedral from above and take the steps of penitence down. The main Cathedral consists in three naves – Central, Life, and Death and Resurrection. The Central Nave has an enormous 50 foot cross at the front and is supported by 4 huge columns representing Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – the authors of the four gospels.
The sheer size of the cathedral (the website says it can seat 900 in just the main nave), is breath taking. As with many holy sites, I found a sharp contrast between the devout visitors who kneel throughout the nave in prayer, and the visitors using selfie sticks to get just the right angle with the cross.
In terms of accessibility, the floors, walls, ceiling are all carved out of the mountain. It would be difficult to take a wheelchair or stroller through here (I am not even sure if it is allowed) and there are some areas I believe are only accessible by stairs. For those with claustrophobia, the main pathways are wide and tall and do not feel tight whatsoever. There is one area called the “Miners Route” which I don’t recommend for those who dislike tight spaces, but it is easily circumvented with another path.
Outside the entrance, the area is a tourist attraction with a rock climbing wall, a food court (try traditional Colombian cuisine – arepas, ajiaco, etc), a small museum, gift shop, etc. Just down the hill from the Salt Mine is the town of Zipaquirá, with its own cathedral, plaza and historic center. I haven’t had a chance to explore yet, but I suggest visiting as it’s an easy way to see a historic Colombian town if you’re visiting from metropolitan Bogotá, since it is just about an hour away. There are also many sit-down Colombian restaurants on the road between the highway and the salt cathedral. You can’t miss them. They’ll all trying to flag you down and get your business.
Price: The Salt Cathedral is kind of expensive compared to most other tourist attractions in Colombia. A regular adult costs $57,000 COP (about $19), children 4-12 are $47,000 ($15), and there are discounts for senior citizens. If you have a Colombian ID, these prices are only $34,000 ($11) and $26,000 ($8) respectively.
From the Salt Cathedral, we made it back to Bogotá in about an hour. It’s an easy trip on the main autopista, although getting in and out of Bogotá is a bit of a hassle with the traffic.
It’s obvious why these things are in the top recommendations for day trips from Bogotá – they’re both unique things to do that are fairly easy to access – and definitely easy to do with kids.