Want some salt with that?

3 Mar

One of the disadvantages of settling into our campsite on Rattlesnake Beach is we do way less travelling in Baja than we did originally.  One of the advantages has been making some very good friends of the folks who make up the beach community. Quite a few of them have fairly large motor boats and as I’ve mentioned before, due to Richard helping them out with launching and retrieving the boats, these wonderful people have kept us in fish all winter long. They have also taken us out on trips we wouldn’t normally have managed on our own, with our kayak, wonderful though it is.

Over the last couple of years we have been squired to out of the way areas where we’ve experienced abandoned buildings, sea caves, pristine white sand beaches and hot springs. These wonderful folks have taken us fishing on occasion, when we’ve opted to go, and put us into Dorado, Roosterfish, and Cabrilla, shown us the sites and acted as tour guides.

A view of Carmen and Danzante Islands

None of the places we’ve been taken to could we have reached in our kayak unless we wanted to overnight and if you know me, you know how I feel about camping, especially since it requires sleeping on the ground and these days, that just isn’t going to happen.

Our latest adventure was sponsored by our closest neighbours on the beach who asked if we’d ever been to the salt works in Salinas Bay on Carmen Island, a spot about 15 miles from us on the far eastern side of the island. We had only heard and read about it but not visited it, so a plan was formed to spend the day with them exploring this historic area.

This is part of the old village. These buildings were work spaces.

The view from our campsite encompasses both Danzante and Carmen Island. Danzante is the small island directly in front of us and Carmen is the large island north of and behind it. It is 18 miles long and on average about 2 miles wide, consisting of approximately 37,000 acres. From the northern end of the island, a narrow peninsula extends 4 miles to the southeast forming the northeastern end of Salinas Bay. The island is actually privately owned and has been since the 1800’s. Currently it is owned by the Salinas Pacifico Company, the last company to operate the Salt works. It’s considered part of the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, which was formed in 1996, and Salinas Pacifico Company works with them to keep it an ecological reserve.

The Private Island

A herd of 500 Big Horn Sheep are kept there and a hunt is operated every year as long as there are enough Class 4 rams (older than 8 years) that are excess to the health of the population. You too can come and stay at the resort that has been built beside the old salt works, and hunt one of these big animals as long as you can afford anywhere from $58,000.00 US and up depending on the size of animal you wish to shoot. For example a Ram that has an overall Boone & Crocket rating of 165 points will cost you $58,000, and one that rates over 174 will cost over $74,000 and so on. If there is no hunt scheduled you can still stay there and indulge your desires for big game fish at a commensurate cost. The resort is first class and quite beautiful and makes full use of the ruins that it sits beside. One can spend quite a lot of time wandering around the old buildings, salt ponds, and machinery graveyards, not to mention the bits and pieces that have been cleaned up, repaired, and preserved. The only real sad note in this is with the poor economy and the price of scrape metal, slowly but surely the old pieces of machinery are being broken up and hauled away, removing much of the history of the place.

This is just a small part of the machinery graveyard

The beach that fronts this place is probably one of the most beautiful we’ve seen on the Sea of Cortez. It used to be full of turtles, but over the centuries, the workers who harvested them as a greatly desired delicacy wiped them out and so far, no attempt has been made to reintroduce them.

How's that for a gorgeous beach?

When we arrived in the Bay we stopped at a wreck lying on its side. The prevailing wind comes from off the land and the bay as I said before is quite shallow so with storms and poor anchorages there are remnants of a number of freighters laying on the bottom, slowly disintegrating. Once we anchored, with a stern anchor and another off the bow running onto the beach we jumped into the crystal clear water and proceeded to the resort, looking for the caretakers. Once found, we obtained permission to land and explore, as there were no guests and no active hunts going on.

This is the road that was built to access the salt flats. There's a sign at it's start saying that it's 6 kilometres to the other side.

Off we went and as you can see from the photos, we had a great time looking at everything; we even walked the length of this gorgeous beach.

A small breakaway salt pond.

One of the things I’ve always strived to do when I see something interesting is find out more about it and once we were back at Rattlesnake I proceeded to do just that. So here’s a fairly condensed version of the history of Carmen Island and the salt works.

The original Spanish settlers in the area were Jesuit priests who arrived in the early 1600’s, they founded the original, formal salt works, an extremely small operation, thanks to information garnered from the local natives. The mine was worked sporadically and natives were exploited as workers, who could be worked to death as long as their immortal souls were saved. This was done simply by baptizing them and giving them Christian names. Since there was more work to be done on the mainland of Baja, building, expanding and maintaining Missions to the glory of God, not to mention political and religious machinations that replaced the Jesuits with the Franciscans, the mine was only occasionally worked with most of the salt exported to Spain.

Some of the original workers homes were made from available materials. This is lumps of coral, cemented together then plastered over.

Starting in the 1800’s the mine was operated continuously, though through a number of different owners, eventually being sold to a British firm for $86,000.00, which included the entire island. Each owner expanded the works, brought in new equipment and increased the tonnage exported. At one time it was the largest employer in the town of Loreto, with staff living on the island as well as being ferried back and forth by boat to the western side of the island and continuing the trip over the spine of the island by mule.

The view out the front window of one of the offices. Pretty nice isn't it?

Salt is graded according to its Baume rate and from what I can find, the salt coming from Carmen Island was considered some of the purest salt in the world. It is called an evaporite deposit (a natural salt or mineral deposit left after evaporation of a body of water) and began with a north trending Graben, (an elongated block of the earths crust lying between 2 faults and displaced downward relative to the blocks on either side) which formed a bay about 1 mile wide and 3 miles long. A broad, flat-topped reef then grew along the shoreline and eventually closed it off, isolating the saltwater lagoon, which evaporated. As salinity increased, calcium sulfate, halite and probably potassium magnesium salts were precipitated, leaving the lagoon filled with evaporite sediments. Over the centuries water trickled through the reef and continued to evaporate while the Graben continued to grow, eventually reaching a size of 2 miles wide, 4 miles long and about 2 miles deep.

These are pillars of salt formed when the salt slurry dripped through the conveyer belt system as it was moved along from the ponds to the dryers near the beach.

Mining continued apace until it became apparent that the companies couldn’t compete with other salt works. As I mentioned before, Salinas Bay is shallow, so the salt would be mined, then moved to the workings on the beach shore where it would be dried and bagged, then placed in Pangas or small boats, which would carry the loads out to the bigger freighters.  These in turn would transport the salt to either Baja mainland or the mainland of Mexico where it again would be unloaded and reloaded into either bigger freighters or trains and shipped again. Each time the salt was moved an additional expense was added to it, pricing itself out of the market. The last salt exported from Carmen Island was in 1983. It seems when they decided to close it, they simply walked away as a great deal of the day to day paper work is still there from invoicing sheets, expense tallies and even pay stubs.

The old loading dock, looking out into Salinas Bay

While we were there, I grabbed a large salt crystal and plan on taking it home to my daughter who writes a well know food blog, Guilty Kitchen.com, I’m sure she’ll appreciate having some of the purest and rarest salt on the planet. Maybe I’ll get her to cook me something wonderful with a tiny bit of Carmen Island salt in it, after all this blog is supposed to be about travelling and eating well, on a budget, and well, the salt was free!


2 Responses to “Want some salt with that?”

  1. Klaus Kommoss March 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    Great story. It all feels a bit strange to view this from afar. However, I’m doing much better.

    • Alexis Thuillier March 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      Glad to hear that things are starting to work out for you. Hope you can stand the cold weather. We’re going to be leaving at the end of March and expect to be home by the end of April

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