The Desolate Salt Mines Of Sal Island, Cape Verde

I didn’t know about Sal until a couple weeks before I departed for a trip to the island, at the invitation of a friend who wanted to go there for the purpose of diving and also wanted to have a travel partner in tow. I knew little about the country of Cape Verde. Between agreeing to go on the trip and now, I’ve learned about the 83.4 square mile stretch of land that sits in the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of Mauritania and in doing so, I’ve learned about Sal’s salt, which has been both the backbone and bane of the island’s economy over the years. The salt mines of Sal are one of the island’s biggest tourist attractions and yet eerily desolate and nearly inactive.

The island itself is one of 10 islands that makes up the country of Cape Verde. Sal is an island belonging to a northern group of islands within the country, called Barlavento. It’s sandy and mostly flat, with the exception of inactive volcanic formations that protrude above the near-desert surface. It’s almost always sunny in Sal and even during the “rainy” season, it hardly rains. Geologically, Sal is the oldest island of Cape Verde. Its earth was formed nearly 50 million years ago from the eruption of a currently inactive volcano. Originally called Llana when the island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1460, the name was changed to Sal after the discovery of the island’s salt mines in what is now called Pedra de Lume. The landscape of Pedra de Lume and the rest of the island doesn’t look much different than the latest images of Mars the Curiosity Rover has sent back.

%Gallery-193936%Located on the northeastern part of the island, Pedra de Lume’s salt was predominantly mined during the 18th century. According to the guide I hired to show me around the island, nearly 300 locals worked the mines during that time. He estimated the current number of mine employees to be around five or so. The village is small these days and seems to mostly persist for the sake of travelers, like myself, who want to see the ancient salt mines for themselves. Very little salt is still produced from these mines – what is made these days is made primarily for locals and tourists. The changing currency of Sal’s salt has been an economic blow in the company of many others for the local community.

The salt evaporation ponds that were built over the natural volcanic salt lake all sit within the Pedra de Lume crater, which is beneath sea level. As I walked through the tunnel that leads to the mines, the light shot shiny beams through the darkness, signaling the clearing ahead. Once through the tunnel, I made my way down the path that leads to the salt ponds and promptly disrobed, eager to experience that famous unsinkable feeling that waters this salty, 26 times saltier than seawater, provide. No matter how much I’d read about this rare buoyancy before or seen in photos, nothing had ever conveyed the feeling of invincibility that washed over me. I struggled to swim to the center of the salt pond and tried my hand at performing yoga postures and dance positions in the water. I’d occasionally roll, collecting the repulsive tonic in my mouth, but I never sank. Instead of showering upon exiting the pond, I let the salt coat my skin, which gave my legs the texture of sandpaper. The spooky scenery of Sal’s salt mines isn’t only memorable; the desolate expanse of otherworldly land lends merit to the main attraction.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]