Salt Deserts, Salt Mines and the Salt Cathedral of Colombia
From Bolivia to Namibia, there are few but enormous salt deserts in the world that can be visited, just as there are few salt mines in the world that open their doors to tourists. In Colombia you can find both, from sea level to the Andes mountains.
We invite you to take this tour through the salt deserts and salt mines of Colombia.
The Importance of Salt
The real value of salt, regardless of domestic consumption, which is marginal, lies in the fact that it is a fundamental input in at least a hundred industrial processes, ranging from the manufacture of balanced feed to detergents, glass and tannery treatment.
Colombia produces some 540,000 tons of salt annually, a relatively small figure. Forty percent of Colombia’s salt comes from the Zipaquirá, Nemocón, Upín and Galerazamba mines, while the remaining 60 percent is extracted from Manaure in La Guajira.
History of Salt Mines in Colombia
Origins of Salt Deposits in the Cretaceous Period
Salt deposits in the Andes are believed to have been left by ground movements during the Cretaceous, 200 million years ago, when the Eastern Cordillera was lifted, and large marine lakes were left to dry and sediment, until they were finally covered by a thick layer of earth.
Importance of Salt for the Muiscas
If there was one commodity that was prized by the indigenous people before the conquest, it was salt. This product was used in the barter system by the Muiscas.
Such was its value that salt allowed the creation of a network of roads and meeting places between indigenous markets where the product was exchanged for others such as corn, gold, ceramics or cotton. There was even a commercial relationship with coastal communities to exchange mine salt for sea salt.
The routes used by the Indians were around the Magdalena River, which connects the northern region of the country with the Muiscas in the Andes.
Salt was so important that for the Zipa and Zaque, the indigenous kings, territories such as Zipaquirá or Nemocón were the crown jewels and allowed them access to many luxuries that their geographical location denied them, including emeralds, fish and peacock feathers, among others.
Salt During the Spanish Colony
Later, salt became much more important among the Spaniards, who used it frequently, among other things, to preserve foodstuffs in the absence of refrigeration.
Salt During Colombia’s Independence
Later on, the income from the salt produced in Zipaquirá helped to finance the independence struggles. Salt was so important that during the 20’s of the last century, this activity was under the tutelage of the recently founded Bank of the Republic, as if it were the monetary policy of the time.
Recent History of Salt Mines in Colombia
In the 1970s, the salt monopoly remained in the hands of the state. Today the mines are managed by private industries.
Apart from its economic importance, and its exploitation as a natural resource, today the salt mines and brines are important tourist destinations in Colombia, the most outstanding being the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, Colombia’s first Wonder of the World.
So if you were wondering in which country is the Salt Cathedral, well here is your answer, it is in Colombia!
Marine Salt Mines of Colombia
An unforgettable visit to the pink seas and salt deserts of Colombia, a universe of landscapes and surreal beauty.
The salt mine of Manaure is the department of La Guajira, in the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Manaure is the largest salt mine in Colombia, producing around 300,000 tons of salt per year. These mines are also an important part of the Wayuu indigenous people’s culture.
When you arrive at the salt mine of Manaure you will find an amazing salt desert. Besides, there is the big machinery pumping for the extraction of salt. Your guide will explain each of the salt extraction processes during the visit.
The main attraction of this maritime salt mine is the pink tone of its waters. This is due to the algae, small crustaceans and microorganisms which turn the water pink. Those amazing organisms are capable of withstanding these high levels of salinity.
At the end of the tour, you can go to the nearby beaches of Mayapo and El Pajaro. Both are quiet beaches with white sands and aquamarine green sea.
If you want to know more about other activities you can do near the Salina Manaure, check out our blogs: Travel Guide to Los Flamencos Fauna & Flora Sanctuary in Colombia, Travel Guide to Macuira: The Cloud Forest Oasis in La Guajira Desert and Northern Caribbean Birding Route.
How to get to Salinas de Manaure
Take a 1-hour flight from El Dorado International Airport (BOG) Bogotá to Almirante Padilla International Airport (RCH) at Riohacha city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 1,5- hours (74 km) ride to Manaure.
Colombia’s Pink Sea: Galerazamba
The famous Pink Sea of Colombia is located in Galerazamba, Santa Catalina, department of Bolivar, between the cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla. It is 54 km from the city Cartagena and 67 km from the city of Barranquilla. It is an also located 15 min (4 km) from the famous Totumo volcano.
Galerazamba is known as “the pink sea of Colombia”. Like Manaure saline, it is pink. The color is given by the beta carotenes produced by a halophilic microalgae, i.e. salt lover microbes.
The mine opens Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and on weekends the entrance starts at 8:00 a.m. The best time to visit this salt mine is in two seasons, one from December to April and the other from August to September.
How to get to Salina Galerazamba
Take a 1,5-hours flight from El Dorado (BOG) in Bogotá to Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG) at Cartagena city. Once at in Cartagena you take an approximately 1h30min ride (54 Km) to Salina Galerazamba.
Underground Salt Mines of Colombia
An unforgettable walk to the depths of the earth, descending through mining tunnels that support the mountain, you will know the most surprising corners of the Salt Mine, a universe of knowledge and sensations.
Nemocón Salt Mine
This beautiful salt mine is located near the municipality of Nemocón, in the department of Cundinamarca. The mine has more than 500 years of history underground and is considered a natural wonder thanks to its vernacular architecture, material testimony of the traditional subway mining. It opened its doors to the public 38 years ago.
The entrance door to the mine is a large German door 3 meters high, which is supported by thick trunks of eucalyptus. The eucalyptus trunks are still there because the salt filtered through the plant fibers. Then salt got solid and now the trunks are stronger than the rock.
Inside you will find the salt waterfall, more than 80 years old, and the spring or wishing well, which are some of their main scenarios. This is a magical thematic, mining, cultural, historical and scientific tour.
How to get to Nemocón Salt Mine
To get to the sanctuary you must take a 1 -hour road trip from the city of Bogotá to the town of Nemocón, total distance of 59 km. When you are in Nemocón you walk for 800 m until you reach the access point of the Nemocón Salt Mine.
Zipaquirá Salt Mine and the Salt Cathedral
This wonderful salt mine is located in the municipality of Zipaquira, in the department of Cundinamarca. It is in the middle of the Cerro del Zipa at 2,652 meters above sea level and has an average temperature of 14ºC (57º F).
When you access the mine you can feel the mineral smell and the whole environment is dark. In the inside, artificial highlights illuminate the carved rock and tunnels.
You will find beautiful sculptures carved by the miners. Among them there is La Piedad, whose face has strong indigenous features, in honor to the Muiscas. Also, you cannot miss is the water mirror, where light gives a fascinating optical effect over the water.
The Salt Cathedral
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is the result of salt deposits in the mountains of the municipality with more than 200 million years old. To build it, more than 250,000 tons of salt rock were extracted. And one of its great attractions is that this deposit is the largest reserve of rock salt in the world.
In 2007, the Salt Cathedral won a contest to choose the Seven Wonders of Colombia. In addition, it was also nominated among the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
This mine is a subway universe where you can find 8,500 square meters of a rich artistic collection, where the delicacy of art and the roughness of mining work result in sculptures carved on salt and marble in an architectural, cultural and natural environment.
The first is the Stations of the Cross, which commemorates the Way to Golgotha of Jesus Christ with his Cross. The second section mades up of the dome. From there you can see the 16-meter high cross carved in bas-relief at a distance of 145 meters. You can descend to the balconies over the chambers, the choir and the stairs of the labyrinth of the Narthex.
The final section leads to the center of the cathedral. A work carved in marble called The Creation of Man, a tribute to Michelangelo, locates there. Besides there are four huge cylindrical columns symbolizing the four evangelists, crossed by a crack symbolizing the nativity and descent of Christ.
The Salt Park
Although the Cathedral itself becomes Zipaquirá’s main tourist attraction, it is part of “El Parque de la Sal”, a thematic cultural space dedicated to mining, geology and natural resources.
The park has 32 hectares and is a unique natural reserve with green spaces, surrounded by nature with corners for resting and sports activities.
Some of the most important sites of the Salt Park are the Brine Museum, the Climbing Wall, the Miner’s Route, the Guasá 3D Movie, the Water Mirror, and the Light Show, where you can admire the impressive system of lights and sound throughout the tour, which further enhances this architectural and cultural icon.
Essensal: A Salt Spa
At the end of the tour you will find Essensal, a relaxation and wellness center where you can find a complete salt-based personal care scheme. It includes natural cosmetic products, body care and relaxation items, and different relaxing massage options focused on wellness.
From the moment you enter the mine, you will experience pleasant sensations of tranquility and harmony, while breathing pure air rich in natural microelements.
How to get to Zipaquirá Salt Mine
To get to the sanctuary you must take a 46-minutes road trip from the city of Bogotá to the town of Zipaquirá, total distance of 43 km. When you are in Zipaquirá you must take a 15-minutes road trip of 4 km to Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá.
You can also take a tour with the Savannah Train Turistren.
Riverine Salt Mines of Colombia
Upín Salt Mine
Located in the department of Meta very close to the municipality of Restrepo, it is the least explored salt mine in Colombia, so we recommend that you do not miss the opportunity to discover it.
In the deposits you will be able to appreciate a salt water spring where you can see the liquid is transported to some cauldrons where it is exposed to high temperatures to evaporate.
This is also a good Birdwatching spot in Meta.
How to get to Mina de sal de Upín
Take a 1-hour flight from El Dorado (BOG) in Bogotá to La Vanguardia Airport (VVC) at Villavicencio city. Once at in Villavicencio you take an approximately 40-minutes ride (18 Km) to Restrepo,when you are in Restrepo you must take a 10-minutes road trip of 3 km to Mina de sal de Upín.
- Catedral de Sal
About the authors
The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism-environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.
Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.