Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns

Date of Submission: 27/09/2012
Criteria: (i)(iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delagation of Colombia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Cundinamarca Department, municipalities of Nemocón, Tausa and Zipaquirá
Ref.: 5761
Word File

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Municipality of Nemocón N5 3 58.76 W73 52 36.83

Municipality of Tausa N5 11 43.93 W73 53 10.82

Municipality of Zipaquirá N5 1 24.01 W74 0 14.53

Zipaquirá, Nemocón and Tausa, towns which make part of the Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns, are located in the region called the Sabana de Bogotá (Bogota Savanna), whose name is taken from the river that runs from north to south. This is a place which, 100 million years ago, was part of a sea with marine deposits, clays and sandstones; upon drying during the Cretaceous period, large salt deposits originated which remain today.

The municipalities under study add up to a total of 120,569 inhabitants, from which Zipaquirá has the largest number with 101,551 and 87.17% inhabitants, located in the county seat (thereby being the main town of the area), unlike Tausa and Nemocón, which are characterized as rural municipalities with 30% of the population living in urban areas and the rest (70%) in rural areas.

The studies carried out in the area allow to establish the presence of humans for about 8,000 years and is one of the sites of earliest human activity inside Colombia. These are groups of hunters and gatherers who were located in foothill areas and who began to develop agricultural practices and process salt about 2,000 years ago during the so-called Herrera period (3500-1200 years Before Present - BP). In this regard, there are two pre-Hispanic archaeological sites wherein remains were found such as ceramic clay pots used for the evaporation of salt water, and this allowed to know the earliest dates of salt processing in the Sabana de Bogotá, the “Zipaquirá V” in Zipaquirá and “Hill of Salt” in the municipality of Nemocón.

The ceramics found in Zipaquirá V showed that this was a semi-permanent human settlement where people lived on farming and hunting, while there are also rock shelters in the area used by travelers and hunters for shorter periods. The rapid development of the salt industry that can be seen at the site would, by the first century B. C., provide for a population estimated at around 30,000.

In turn, excavations in Nemocón allowed the identification of a 3.30m - deep deposit, which indicates continuous occupation of the place of about two thousand years. Evidence yielded by the study of the fragments of ceramic vessels used for evaporating salt water indicates that the earliest date of occupation is the year 2210 + / - 65 Before Present.

The process of obtaining salt in the Herrera period is the same process which the Muisca culture would use centuries later, and would remain up to the nineteenth century without major variations. Salt was obtained from sources of salt water and placed in large clay pots on furnaces fueled by firewood from nearby forests. When boiling, water would slowly evaporate and salt in solid state would sit in the pot, would later be broken into pieces for transportation. The ready – to – market product used to be called "loaf of salt".

The Muiscas were producers of salt by the time the Spaniards arrived. Their main production sites were Zipaquirá Nemocón and Tausa, and they marketed salt in locations as far as 200 kilometers. This is the case of the salt found by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada (Spanish conquistador who founded current Bogota) and his soldiers in the mountains of Opon and Puerto de la Tora (today the city of Barrancabermeja), on the Magdalena River. When Jimenez de Quesada arrived and found the loaves of salt, different from rock salt which came from the sea, he was surprised and motivated to explore the mountains. Shortly thereupon, Jimenez de Quesada and his soldiers discovered and conquered the Muiscas; for this reason salt can be considered the key to the conquest of the highlands. It is worth noting that such was the importance of salt as an element of barter, and such was the high volume being traded in Zipaquirá and Nemocón, that it brought high power at the political level within the structure of the indigenous Administration.

The beginning of the colonial period was characterized by the fact that exploitation and trade of salt continued to be in the hands of the indigenous peoples, as those who wished to produce salt had to pay taxes to the Indian Chiefs (Caciques) of the towns which owned the saline sources. This fact fostered a quite particular situation in Zipaquirá during the colonial period, as it propelled coexistence amongst indigenous populations and white people who settled in the zone, whereas up to the time both groups had been living separately. Years later, towards the late XVI Century, in establishing the Real Audiencia de Santa Fé (Royal Court of Santa Fe – today Bogota), the first steps were taking towards the definition of new provisions with regard to the production of salt in the New Kingdom of Granada, and specifically in Nemocón, Zipaquirá Tausa and their annexed townships. These changes were associated with increasing the size of the ovens and clay pots in order to increase production, and by the seventeenth century there began the process of controlled exploitation of rock salt in Zipaquirá, which used to be diluted in water, thereby obtaining brine.

However, management of salt exploitation by the Spaniards was poor, since there was always shortage of salt in the New Kingdom, which led to setting forth new provisions by the early nineteenth century, a period which coincided with the visit of German intellectual Alexander von Humboldt. Von Humboldt made ​​some contributions to the operating system, the most important of them having to do with the introduction of mines and tunnels for rock salt extraction, which began to be converted into salt grain by 1817. The latter became the first step to eliminating the traditional Indian system of mineral processing. This system of tunnels is still valid currently, albeit with some variations.

Having achieved independence from Spain in 1819, control over the benefit of the salt was made ​​by the emerging state, preserving its monopoly until today. Salt trade encouraged the collection of taxes for the construction and maintenance of pathways through which the processed mineral would be transported, as well as the construction of a railway line which connected this area with Bogotá.

Exploitation both in open and underground mines in Nemocón and Zipaquirá was perfected during the nineteenth century, beginning with the hauling of the mineral by means of oxen, the subsequent introduction of streetcars and, by the end of the nineteenth century, the appearance of railways along which wagons would circulate carrying saline material. By the early twentieth century, excavation was already performed vertically.

All these forms of production have left a mark on the landscape of the area which depended on the technique used at the time, always seeking the most efficient way to transport and market the salt. This resulted in improvement in the original pre-Hispanic roads, the development of railways and finally the rise of roads until achieving the image of country we have today. The existence of this mineral was decisive for the emergence of communities that reached a certain level of power during the pre-Hispanic period, and the subsequent control of its production by the Spanish was used as an instrument of power.

The inhabitants of these three towns find in salt the most powerful element of their cultural heritage, and the salt mines are visited annually by thousands of people from all over the world.

Cultural resources associated with this cultural landscape are:

  • Deposits of Ceramic at the Colina de la Sal - Salt Hill site (Nemocón)

At the top of the hill under which the Nemocón Salt Mine was excavated, there were traces of salt process – related work during the pre-Hispanic period. These vestiges consist of pieces of pottery represented belonging to pottery known as moyas or gachas, porridges used in the evaporation of salt water, and is the largest and best preserved evidence of this activity within the country. Gachas or moyas were pieces of pottery in which salt water was evaporated from water coming from springs which surrounded the vicinity of the land where the salt mine is located today; the pots would be placed on burners on which, after two days of continuous evaporation of the brine, loaves of salt would be obtained by breaking the pots, and the loaves of salt would be subsequently sold.

  • Urban Traces of Population Centers

The three towns located in this Cultural Landscape were formally founded in 1600 as Indian villages notwithstanding the fact they already existed and their administration was entrusted to an encomendero (Chancellor).

In the case of Nemocón, the urban area has a peculiarity among the towns studied, and that is to have originated its layout from an architectural element, the Casa del Encomendero (which still exists), from which the location of the main square and the church were decided, unlike other Indian villages where the most important element of the urban space, as well as the sole element of organization, was the main square. For this reason, and because of previous existence of roads connecting Nemocón with neighboring Suesca and Zipaquirá, only a few blocks are square or rectangular in shape as established for newly founded towns. Most blocks have a shape which adapts to the foothills and roads.

As for Tausa, the existence of a geological fault and the progressive deterioration of the buildings determined, in 1940, the transfer of the municipality's urban center to its current site. There still remain, however, some elements of the original urban layout, such as the Casa de Administración de las Salinas - Saline Industry Management House, and the church.

Zipaquirá was founded in 1600 by Luis Enriquez as an Indian town, but it was also a residence for Whites for many years. As such, it was the most important populated town of the region, even to this day. It preserves an important collection of architecture from the Colonial and Republican periods.

  • Nemocón Salt Mine

The Nemocón Salt Mine is, along with the Zipaquirá Salt Mine, a unique example in the Latin American context of exploitation of this mineral through underground structures. The difference with the Zipaquirá salt mine lies in the religious character of the latter, as well as and the testimonial character of the mining activity of Nemocón.

The Salt Mine is distributed in two levels of operation: Santa Barbara (the closest to the surface and the level which now can be accessed by visitors) and Santa Isabel (with restricted access and flooded by a lake of brine). The level of access is located 60 meters deep below the top of the mountain and is accessed through a system of ramps and stairs.

The excavation tunnels were built with the “German Door” system, consisting of eucalyptus – tree frames which gradually become petrified over time and because of exposure to the environmental conditions of the mine, as well as the system of "baskets" that support the terrain in places where there is greater clearance between floor and ceiling.

The museographic arrangement inside the mine displays the working conditions within this place, whereat the miners developed their daily activities such as ballroom and chapel, as well as the presence of elements akin to their work such as coaches and lamps. Also, a museum has also been built on the outside showcasing the geological and paleontological richness of this area of ​​the Sabana de Bogota.

The construction of the mine dates back to the early nineteenth century (1801), when Alexander von Humboldt reaches Nemocón and leaves the foundations for underground excavation of exploitation tunnels. The appearance of the mine brought about a change in the way mineral resources had been exploited up to the time, as it introduced the method of saturation of the rock extracted in fresh water wells. The mine thus became an important source of employment and the motor for the identity of the population for a long time. The mining activity itself remained in force until 2003, when the exploitation method changed and brine extraction started at the Santa Isabel level through piping.

Since its appearance, the Nemocón Salt Mine has become a major source of identity for the population. The mine was one of the principal sources of employment until the exploitation method changed, and narrations belonging to the realm of mining survive amongst the inhabitants of the town.

  • Zipaquirá Salt Mine

The Mine is the most important element of identity of this municipality, and one of the most nationally and internationally renowned elements of the country's central area. The mine is located on the foothills west of the town of Zipaquirá. The Salt Mine which is open to visitors is built 60 meters below the original mine, which was closed in the first half of the twentieth century. The Salt Mine is one of the sites with the highest number of visitors in the country; its existence is promoted internationally and has been declared as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

  • Nemocón Salt Museum

A whole narration has been built about the importance that salt processing has had for the region, and particularly for Nemocón. The facilities of the Salt Museum are currently located at the former Casa del Encomendero, the oldest building in the town, located east in a corner of the main square. The Museum is divided into two levels. The first level houses meeting rooms and a hall where a permanent installation in the exhibition will soon be built, which is currently at the Museum of Natural History located of the Savanna, located at the Nemocón Salt Mine. This exhibition will address issues relating to the first settlers of the Sabana de Bogotá who settled in this area. The second level addresses the salt processing topic per se, both in pre-Hispanic times and in colonial times.

The Museum operates since 1996 in one of the few buildings of the colonial period which are still standing in Nemocón, and it is a one - of - a - kind museum in Colombia.

  • Artisanal Furnaces in Nemocón

By the early twentieth century, there were over a hundred furnaces in Nemocón for artisanal salt processing, that is, by the evaporation method. Today at the wake of the XX century, there only remains one oven where this method is preserved, though with some variations.

The Salt Furnace is located north of the town of Nemocón, about 500 meters from the main square. The furnace is not an old building, but it does represent a tradition currently in danger of disappearing. There no longer are people in Nemocón currently engaged in this activity, due to disappearance of furnaces. The salt processed is sold at retail for farmers and individuals coming from the departments of Cundinamarca, Boyacá and Santander.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Salt is a staple food for humans, both for cooking and for food preservation. In pre-Hispanic times, salt processing was used as an element that gave independence to some indigenous groups located in the highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. During the colonial period, the benefit of the salt was under the dominion of the Spaniards who introduced an organized operating system, whilst during the period of the Republic it has been the state to hold control over the benefit of this product. Historically, this indicates that salt has been used as an instrument of power.

In the towns forming the Salt Cultural Landscape there are visible traces of these salt processing ancient practices, and this has allowed the first inhabitants of the territory to have access to products from different climatic zones though the barter system. Likewise, there are ancestral practices which remain in force, with some modifications, and traces of transformation of the natural environment, driven also by the dynamics of exploitation. We can say, therefore, that this is an area with similar natural and cultural features, having as a common denominator the main element of identity (which has remained over time): salt processing.

Criterion (i): The construction of the Salt Mines was a major technological breakthrough for this area of ​​the continent. Given their age, these mines are an example of technological innovation in the extraction of minerals. The mines are still in operation today with museographic arrangements of a religious and industrial kind, which exalt the mining work developed there, and are visited annually by thousands of tourists from around the world.

Criterion (iii): Upon arrival to the territory, the Spaniards took advantage of the existing physical infrastructure, labor and indigenous practices for salt processing. It is still possible to observe the traditional exploitation method in some artisanal facilities. Currently there is a thematic museum that describes this period of colonial exploitation. Salt processing was a determining factor in the development of a culture that appeared in the Cundinamarca – Boyacá highlands over two thousand years ago, which has left its mark on the territory and is an ensign of their identity.

Criterion (v): The location of salt water springs favored the early appearance of human groups in the area. Exploitation of salt continues to this day, thus becoming a source of work and resources especially for two of the three towns that are located within this cultural landscape (Nemocón and Zipaquirá).

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The resources associated with this cultural landscape are in relatively good condition, and some of them, such as ceramic vestiges of the Colina de la Sal in Nemocón have been protected by Colombian legislation, ensuring its permanence over time. Both the museum and underground mines attract thousands of visitors each year; this makes the mines the main tourist attractions of the North of the Sabana de Bogotá. Although the ways of exploitation of this mineral have evolved, both in the Salt Mine and in the Salt Museum located in Nemocón, the testimony of ancient practices is preserved.

Comparison with other similar properties

Cultural Landscape of Hallstatt - Dachstein / Salzkammergut (Austria)

Included in the World Heritage List in 1997 under criteria i and iv. “The human activity in the natural landscape of the Salzkammergut dates back to prehistoric times, when the abundant salt deposits began to be exploited in the second millennium B. C. This resource became, until the mid - twentieth century, the basis of the economic prosperity of the area, which is reflected in the architecture of the town of Hallstatt”.

Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila (Mexico)

Included on the World Heritage List in 2006 under criteria ii, iii, iv and v. "It lies between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the valley of Rio Grande. It covers an area of ​​34,658 hectares and makes part of a vast landscape of blue agave crops, a plant that has been used since the sixteenth century to produce tequila and, for at least 2,000 years, to make fermented drinks and clothes thanks to its fibers. Within this area we can find tequila distillery activities as an exponent of increased international consumption of the drink throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, it is considered that the cultivation of agave is an intrinsic element of Mexican national identity. The site comprises the landscape shaped by the fields where blue agave is grown and urban settlements of Tequila, Arenal and Amatitlán, with large distilleries. It also includes areas of archaeological remains of cultivated terraces, houses, temples, ceremonial mounds and ball game terrains that are a testimony of the Teuchitlán culture, predominant in the Tequila region between 200 and 900 A. D. "

Historic Cultural Landscape of the Tokaj Wine Region (Hungary).

Included on the World Heritage List in 2002 under criteria iii, and v. “The cultural landscape of Tokaj is a testament to the long tradition of wine from this region of hills, rivers and valleys. It is configured by a complex set of vineyards, farms, towns and villages that have an ancestral network of warehouses, and is a living example of the different facets of the production of the famous Tokaj wine, whose quality has been under strict control for three centuries”.

In the Cultural Landscape of Salt Towns it is also possible to find elements from different periods, and at different levels, which are related to the exploitation of the mineral, from ceramic remains of pre-Hispanic exploitation and secondary forest plantations (forests which supplied the necessary wood for the operation of the furnace) to industrial facilities represented in underground mines (which remain in use and constitute a special touristic attraction) and the railroad tracks, up to the architecture and urbanism of the three towns, marked by the presence of salt and on which the Spanish put their eyes as centers of power over an entire territory. It is a territory that has been transformed for over 2,000 years from the exploitation of natural resources, an age older than the Agave cultural landscapes of Mexico and Wine in Hungary, and in this sense only comparable with that of Hallstatt- Dachstein / Salzkammergut in Austria.