Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns
Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns is part of the Tentative list of Colombia in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns is located in a former sea bed where salt deposits remain. Salt was mined here already long before colonial times by the Muiscas. After the arrival a more industrial approach was taken, the current mine complexes date from the 19th century. The landscape comprises the towns and mines of Zipaquirá, Nemocón and Tausa.
Map of Cultural Landscape of Salt TownsLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
In preparation of my Colombia trip I thought I had stumbled upon an interesting TWHS location to write about. Of the 3 Salt Towns that form a combined entry on the Tentative List, Zipaquirá is by far the most touristy one. Nemocón however is a bit more off-the-beaten track and has more authentic salt history on show. I knew from his itinerary that Solivagant aimed for Zipaquirá, so I thought I had found a different (and maybe better!) angle. Upon his return though we exchanged e-mails and it became clear that he had gone to Nemocón as well instead of Zipaquirá. To make things worse, he even wrote the kind of review which makes you wonder whether you’d want to go there at all.
I contemplated for a moment to aim for Tausa, the third town that is part of this Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns TWHS. But that would require an even longer trip by public bus from Bogota. So on an early Sunday morning I was off to Nemocón as well. There are hourly buses by the Transalianza company that will take you there from Bogota’s main bus station (Terminal Salitre, Modulo Rojo). Door-to-door it took me 3 hours each way.
Nemocón turned out to be a cozy place, geared to tourism on a modest scale. You can also get there by tourist train from Bogotá. Salt was extracted in this region already before the arrival of the Spaniards. It was done by boiling brackish groundwater in large jars and then allowing it to dry, which leaves the salt. The Spanish colonizers had the local population produce salt for export on an industrial scale. In the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt visited Nemocón. He taught the population to extract salt more efficiently by digging salt mines.
The local salt mine, which is no longer used, is now open to visitors. According to the Tentative Site description there must also be a salt museum, located in the oldest building in town. However, I found it firmly closed and sporting a sign "For rent".
I therefore walked straight to the entrance of the salt mine complex. The entrance fee here is 29,000 pesos (7.85 EUR), a steep amount by Colombian standards. I arrived just in time to join a Spanish-speaking tour. The tour started with a visit to a small-scale exhibition (maybe the transferred objects from the closed museum in the town center?) - with fossils of fish and other animals found here, when (100 million years ago) there was a sea at this location. This also explains the presence of salt layers.
There were some 30-40 visitors on my tour, at first glance all Colombian day trippers. After donning the helmets and walking down a somewhat slippery staircase we arrived in the most beautiful part of the salt mine. The rough walls with salt fragments are reflected in water channels. When you look over the edge of a channel, it seems like you are looking into an enormous depth; but it is just the mirror image of the ceiling. A special photographer had come along to take souvenir photos of the visitors, to the great delight of the Colombians.
After this we got a tour along an almost endless row of "sights". Some are of a natural nature, such as a "waterfall" of salt. But much has also been added by humans. There is of course a chapel, a nativity scene made of salt crystals, a big heart made of salt and a number of exhibits about people who played an important role in the history of this salt mine.
The tour lasted 2 hours in total - very long. I didn't feel as bad about it as Solivagant (our group didn’t have to go through rounds of introductions and there were only limited question-answer plays). But at the end I was constantly checking the time to see if it would be over soon or whether we had to view even more strange things slightly associated with salt....
Read more from Els Slots here.
Imprisoned in a Salt mine!! We only had 2 experiences in Colombia where we had to join a group tour – visits to Guatavita Lake and to Nemocon mine. BOTH suffered from an incredibly long-winded tour experience. This was not due to our problems with Spanish – the Nemocon tour was in (semi) English and the Guatavita tour Spanish was adequately understood by us. No, it appears that Colombians expect a good long outing when they pay for a guided tour! Our Nemocon tour lasted almost 2 hours and could have been perfectly well covered in 1!!
Out of the 3 Salt Towns included in this T List site we had originally intended visiting that at Zipaquirá for no better reason than it was on our direct route back to Bogota. It is also by far the most frequently visited, being an easy day (or even afternoon, if you have your own transport) return journey from Bogota. It is particularly famous for its underground “Salt Cathedral”. For some unknown reason however the mine decided to close on the day we were due to visit and, rather than swap dates, we opted to visit the mine at Nemocón instead.
It is noteworthy that the site is listed as the “Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns” which implies that it is intended to cover rather more than a mine in each town. There are indeed a few elements mentioned in addition to the mines themselves – at Nemocon, excavations have uncovered pre-Spanish remains of salt working by the indigenous Muisca people and again at Nemocon, mention is made of “Furnaces for artisanal salt processing” of which just 1 remains “… located north of the town of Nemocón, about 500 meters from the main square.”. These few “visible traces of these salt processing ancient practices” hardly seem to add up to a viable “Cultural Landscape” when put together with the 3 mines and another element mentioned at Nemocon – “Nemocón Salt Museum - …… currently located at the former Casa del Encomendero, the oldest building in the town, located east in a corner of the main square”. We visited an institution called the Nemocon salt museum” but it was situated inside one of the buildings of the salt mine itself.
This museum explained perfectly adequately, with partial bi-lingual notices, the geological reasons for presence of the salt and the history of its extraction – from pre-Colombian times when it was a valuable product as well as a medium of barter for the Muisca in return for the gold their lands were not particularly well endowed with. The Spaniards immediately recognised the value of the product and installed their own harsh labour system. Production continued with improvements in technology across the years until around 1973.
We were quite pleased when we had to decide between Zipaquirá and Nemocon – it appears that the famous “Salt Cathedral” at Zipaquirá is a “reproduction” as the original was regarded as unsafe so, as their income depends on having a “Cathedral cave”, they dug another one! It sounded very touristy, whilst Nemocon appeared more “authentic”. But our visit didn’t start well - we were asked to wait for 30 minutes for an English speaking tour and visited the Museum finding it quite interesting. After 40 minutes, however, it became clear we were being scammed. We eventually started after 50 minutes when a mixed language group eventually turned up. Our guide was not a particularly good English speaker and insisted on asking everyone in the group their names, nationalities, what they had had for breakfast (well almost!). We went through the museum again and he “explained” things which were perfectly well explained by the info boards. But he insisted on running it as a quiz. “Does anyone know why…..?" For God’s sake get me out of here!!!! I understand that visitors to Zipaquirá are issued with audio guides though whether this enables them to fully "escape" the human guide's spiel I don't know - it sounds to be a good start though!
We were eventually taken into the drift mine with an inordinately long delay for kitting us out with helmets. Underground could have been interesting if taken at a reasonable pace, but again it was all SO SLOW. Some of the salt formations and the underground reflecting pools (photo) were nice to see (except that we all had to guess how deep they were). We were also treated to a church area (You’ve got to have a church and religious statues in a touristy Salt mine!), a heart shaped crystal where one could renew one's vows with /express undying love for, one's partner, a plastic model of Von Humboldt, a series of salt statues where we had to guess what animal etc they were etc etc. Then much time was spent on the set and seeing helmets signed by the stars for the movie “The 33”. By this time I was near screaming point.
Now, we have visited almost all the WHS which provide the opportunity to go down a mine. In our experience, each places itself somewhere on a spectrum between tourist “wow” attraction and industrial archaeology site – Nemocon aims far too much at the former. We were pleased to get out. Whether there was more to see on the external “cultural landscape” aspects I don’t know – by the time we got out there wasn’t time to find out!
2012 Added to Tentative List
The site has 3 locations