The centuries-old salt-industrial complex of Pedra de Lume, in the Cape Verdean island of Sal, still produces salt for export, whilst tourists bathe in the picturesque panorama of the salt pans beside a volcano crater. This unique site now looks into becoming a UNESCO heritage site.
“The Pedra de Lume salt pans are unique in the world, there is no other of its kind inside a volcano crater, it is something spectacular. It has all the conditions to be recognized by UNESCO ”, describes the mayor of Sal, Júlio Lopes, to Lusa news agency.
With an area of 40 hectares and explored on a regular basis for about 200 years, the Pedra de Lume salt pans are described as an exceptional site, formed in the crater of an extinct volcano, 39 meters above sea level and 1,500 meters above sea level. A sheltered cove which since 2004 integrates the indicative list of Cape Verde in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Since 2003, the salt flats have been classified as a protected national landscape and since 2014 as a natural, historical and cultural heritage of Cape Verde.
Before the covid-19 pandemic, which left tourism in indefinite suspension, hundreds of tourists visited the salt flats every day, surrounded by the crater.
“We want to have this historical element here, after the rehabilitation, in addition to health tourism, which will be complementary”, explains the mayor, referring to the Government’s project for the rehabilitation of the entire salt complex, currently with management granted to private individuals , delayed due to the pandemic.
In the past, the crater, was in contact with the sea, allowing the infiltration of water which, by evaporation, left a deposit of rock salt estimated at more than 50 million tons. The access to the salt pans is made through a tunnel excavated by sheer manpower, just below the cable car transport network that once drained the ‘white gold’ from the interior to a nearby port.
During the Portuguese colonial period, the extraction of salt on that island reached a heyday, especially in exports to Brazil, reaching 30,000 tons per year until 1887, declining strongly until 1963, when the local industrial activity was practically discontinued; the extraction and export of small quantities, mainly for making beauty products was all that remained.
“Salt was also important for the history of Portugal”, recognizes Júlio Lopes, guaranteeing at the same time that “there are all conditions” for the salt flats in Pedra de Lume to be classified by UNESCO: “It is a unique thing in the world. Each one in its own time, I think we will have several elements from Cape Verde registered with Unesco ”.
After an hour of bathing in the saline, to treat rheumatism, Portuguese Mário Silva, 72 years old and businessman in Leiria, feels renewed. He came to Sal to recover for a week in the salt flats.
They have been there for more than 15 days and continue through Sal, even if he is the only one for these days.
“It is very good for my health. I come every day, ”he explains.
The trips to the Pedra de Lume salt flats began ten years ago, twice a year, and guarantees that health has improved, even if entry for foreigners costs five euros a day.
He only regrets not seeing “improvements” in infrastructure, with the entire industrial complex and its heavy machinery, many which would fit in a museum as historic pieces, slowly decaying.
“It’s a shame, it has a lot of potential and it’s good,” says Mário Silva, one of the few tourists who, in the middle of a pandemic, visits Sal.
On the requalification of the salt complex, on which a possible classification of the space by UNESCO also depends, mayor Júlio Lopes admits that it was programmed by the Government, but was “hampered by the pandemic”.
“But this project continues, when the situation improves”, he assumes.
The Cape Verdean Government assumed, in September, that the restoration of the Industrial and Heritage Complex of Salinas de Pedra de Lume, which provides a museum dedicated to traditional local activities, is a “priority” work for the post-pandemic of covid-19.
The project for that location is concluded and the intervention, which will last nine months, foresees an investment of 72 million escudos (or €650k), to be carried out after the rebalancing of public accounts, in the face of the crisis caused by the pandemic of covid-19.
“As it is, it is already a very good thing, mandatory for tourists. In a few years’ time we will have Pedra de Lume as a reference ”, guarantees Júlio Lopes.
It will involve the restoration not only of the cable car circuit, which transported salt abroad, but also the installation of a museum center and a museum linked to the history of salt on the island.
The historic activity of the Pedra de Lume salt pans has been abandoned, with some buildings and the structure of a transport cable car remaining in an advanced state of degradation, but it is still a mandatory point of passage for tourists visiting the island.
Saline activity on the island dates back to the 18th century, mainly due to the perfect mixture of its environment, allowing the exploitation of sea water, which seeps through the porous stone of the land and evaporates with the high temperatures that are registered there; add that to the island’s crater, and you have a unique landscape.