We arrived and began our visit with café tinto and arepas boyacenses, and began finding our way to the road to climb up the hill to the cathedral. We stopped on the way at a market where dozens of vendors sold artisanal wares as well as everything from incense and candy to colorful leggings and pets, and we sampled perhaps the best hot chocolate I have ever encountered.
From there we began our ascent of the hill and encountered a "touristic train" (diesel vehicle disguised as an old-style locomotive) which for $4500 pesos (about $1.50) took us to the salt cathedral and back as well as on a tour of the town's charming historic center.
The visit to the salt cathedral itself was quite strange. There were many hundreds of other tourists present, and the site offers everything from a salt museum to more shopping opportunities and a food court to a climbing wall. For the standard entry price we received a 2-hour guided tour of the sprawling underground maze of chapels and altars, a viewing of a film about the history of the mine (in 3-D, no less), and the opportunity to shop some more, 180 meters below the earth's surface.
Our guide was charming, polite, and well-spoken as well as knowledgeable and proud of the site where he worked.
We learned that the salt miners started the tradition of carving cathedrals out of the salt rocks to ask for protection from the Virgin Mary in their dangerous work.
We saw enormous crosses (some weighing several tons), beautifully carved statues, a water mirror (deceptively shallow), and exquisite wall carvings.
The strangeness was the juxtaposition and blending of commerce and religion, which I suppose is standard for historic church sites like this, but which felt a bit weirder underground, when we were literally inside a full-sized mall selling mostly salt-related and religious items.
When we once again reached the surface we enjoyed the train ride down the sloping hill within which the cathedral is located, and found some passable Mexican food to eat for a delicious lunch (followed by the ever-present ice cream required by travel) before finding another flota bus back to Bogotá.