Wednesday April 4, 2001 11:13 AM ET

Salt Church Mines Colombians' Search for Peace

By Saul Hudson

ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia (Reuters) - To find a patch of peace amid the chaotic civil war seething throughout Colombia, descend into the dark interior of a salt mountain.

Far from the right-wing paramilitary guns, leftist rebel bombs and the street crime and traffic din of Bogota, devout Colombians have cut and chiseled an awe-inspiring cathedral in caverns 750 yards inside the Zipaquira mountain.

A slowly spiraling tunnel, large enough to drive a truck through, winds with minimal lighting past 14 stations of the cross, sculpted simply and powerfully in chambers depicting Christ's crucifixion.

At the tunnel's end, a stepped choral gallery overlooks three parallel cavernous naves holding a baptismal font, a priest's pulpit and an altar beneath a towering crucifix, illuminated in white, gouged into a back wall of rock.

And it is all in salt.

Directed by local architect Jose Maria Gonzalez, more than 100 sculptors and miners labored for four years inside the salt mine, blasting chambers, chiseling rock and smoothing the crystallized salt into a majestic and peaceful place of worship in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation.

Completed in 1995 at a cost of $8 million, the Catholic cathedral, which hosts occasional weddings and baptisms, draws 200,000 visitors a year, making it one of the most resilient tourist destinations in the face of Colombia's violent image.

``People come in here worried about the dark, claustrophobia and even that the underground is the devil's territory. They leave with a sense of calm and peace,'' guide Viviana Castaneda said, whispering in keeping with the surroundings that dampen noise 180 yards (meters) under the mountain's peak.


In the last decade, the number of foreign visitors to Colombia plunged 30 percent to about 700,000 last year as the struggle for control of much of the South American nation's varied territory claimed 40,000 -- mainly civilian -- lives.

Headlines about the world's No. 1 cocaine exporter and kidnap capital and the Western Hemisphere's largest rebel forces weigh more heavily on tourists than promotions featuring picturesque Caribbean sand, Amazon jungle and Andean hills.

With the U.S. media following the war closely because of Washington's $1 billion in mainly military aid, guide books on Colombia are rare and outdated in the United States, while neighboring Ecuador, Peru and Brazil fill shelves with new tourist literature.

``We've been stigmatized because the media only reports bad news,'' Edgar Mejia of Colombia's Tourism Promotional Fund said. ''It's a struggle to show visitors there is another side to Colombia,'' he added, listing such stunning sites as the Spanish colonial fortress city of Cartagena and the unspoiled Tayrona nature reserve park.

Zipaquira Mayor Everth Bustamante refuses to be pessimistic. His municipality of 120,000 people 30 miles (50 km) from Bogota earns an annual $1 million from the underground cathedral's $5 entry tickets, on top of the jobs created by Colombia's largest salt mine, which is still active there.

Bustamante plans to open offices in New York and Paris promoting Zipaquira as ``an island of peace'' thanks to its distance from both Bogota's crime and the nation's main theater of conflict in its southern and northern jungles.

``There are enough tourists who visit holy sites in Israel despite the fighting there, so I do not see why we cannot bring people to our wonderfully, unique attraction,'' he said.

Darkness Focuses The Mind

The salt rock inside the Zipaquira mountain is white when moist with trickling water, but mostly it is gray-black and, feeling like typical stone, can be fashioned into vast rooms, imposing sculptures or robust pews.

The inspiration came from successive generations of miners who sculpted a niche altar to pray for protection under a mountain first exploited by Indians in the 15th century.

The cathedral's artists used the mineral's strength to portray the stations of the cross, avoiding intricate figures and representing the passion of Christ's last hours by varying the setting of huge crosses hewn from the rock.

At one station, when Christ falls under the weight of the cross, the salt crucifix is shown submerged in the rock. And at the final stop of the Via Crucis a cross is cut nine feet deep into a wall, symbolizing the sense of emptiness at his death.

``We may have the Vatican (news - web sites) on our doorstep but there's no doubting this has a special feeling -- it's a marvelous work of art and is infused with so much calm,'' said a visitor from Rome who was in Colombia not for tourism but to adopt a child.

David Rincon, a miner who has worked in the deposit for more than 20 years, first extracting salt and now maintaining the church, said the designers created a sense of peace.

``The darkness wraps you up in yourself and helps you concentrate,'' he said. ``In a normal church above ground there are distractions, but here people focus and feel closer to God.''

-- David L. Gilles-Thomas