SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Christians around the world will attend church tomorrow on Easter Sunday. In Colombia, some will gather 600 feet underground in a former salt mine. Colombia's Salt Cathedral is both an architectural wonder and a popular house of worship. Here's reporter John Otis.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: To enter the Salt Cathedral, we walk through a tunnel once used by hundreds of miners. Dank and spooky, it seems to be taking us into the bowels of the earth. But soon, Roman Catholic icons come into view.
ANDRES ORTIZ: OK, visitors, welcome to the salt mine. Welcome to the Salt Cathedral.
OTIS: Tour guide Andres Ortiz leads us past sculptures of angels and the Stations of the Cross that are carved into the rock salt walls.
ORTIZ: This is all carved by hand - take five years to build all the Stations of the Cross.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).
OTIS: Deeper down, the temple opens up to reveal three naves, a basilica dome and a floor-to-ceiling cross illuminated with purple lights. There are also rows of pews that are now filling up for mass.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Spanish).
OTIS: For all of its splendor, the Salt Cathedral had modest beginnings. It's located in Zipaquira, an Andean mining town near the capital city of Bogota. Before their shifts, workers would visit a small chapel built inside the salt mine to pray for protection from accidents. After removing tons of salt, they left behind a network of tunnels and caverns.
JORGE CASTELBLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Mining engineer Jorge Castelblanco says most exhausted mines are simply abandoned and sealed up. But in this case, miners and Roman Catholic Church officials persuaded the Colombian government to convert all that empty space into a church in 1953. Structural problems forced its closure in 1990. That's when Castelblanco, 127 miners, plus a handful of sculptors were brought in to build the current version of the cathedral. It's now located 200 feet below the original. Castelblanco said one of the biggest challenges was transferring the massive altar carved from rock salt from the old site to the new.
CASTELBLANCO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "It weighed 16 tons," Castelblanco says. "To move it, we had to divide it into three pieces." The effort appears to have paid off.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Many visitors, like Reagan Jeffries, a Dallas-area schoolteacher, are amazed by what they see.
REAGAN JEFFRIES: Just as far as the structure, I was just - how do you even make this? How do you bring the equipment down and - I mean, he said there were only less than 150 miners involved. That's insane to me. I just found it to be incredibly impressive.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in Spanish).
OTIS: It's also breathed new life into the local economy. Salt mining here has dwindled, but now, thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims flock here every day. And although it's not among the Seven Wonders of the World, Colombia's Congress has proclaimed the Salt Cathedral the first wonder of Colombia. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Zipaquira, Colombia.
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