Some months ago Freddy Medina, the manager at the Soggy Peso Bar & Grill here on Isla Mujeres, mentioned that his island ancestors gathered salt from the island's landlocked briny lakes. The salt was used for preserving fish right up to the time that electricity and refrigerators became available. I thought that was pretty interesting story so decided to research the salt works on Isla Mujeres.
|Salinas Grande on Isla Mujeres|
For several weeks I had been cruising the internet trying to find more information about the salt works without much success – until I found the Aztlan Association and website. This association is a group of forty-five, or more, experts on all things Meso-American. Their backgrounds range from professor at the University of Arizona, the curator of the Ancient America Museum Exhibitions, a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas, to a Gallery Specialist of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Boca Raton Museum of Art Florida. (You get the idea!) The number of PhD degrees, attached to the various names, is amazing. I am one of a handful of “amateur” members of the Aztlan Association. Thankfully a number of the professionals were more than happy to answer my questions.
|Some of the inhabitants of the Salinas Grande|
The gist of the story is that when the Spanish discovered Isla in 1519 the islanders were already using salt as a preservative as well as trading it to the mainland villages from what is now Puerto Morelas in the south up to as far as Veracruz in the north for other supplies. According to Fernando Alcocer the salt was traded for products like skins, meat, jade, obsidian, cotton blankets, and honey. The salt works were exploited by the villagers of Dolores, the original name of the town at the north end of Isla Mujeres – which is now referred to as el Centro on the island.
As Rae Clare, another member of Aztlan Association sent me a quote from a book written in 1880's by Alice lePlongeon: "At the beginning of the fishing season, men and women would collect the salt that was deposited by evaporation on the shore of the pools. They seemed to regard it as a kind of picnic, though the work was laborious, especially for the women, who stood up to their waists in muddy water all day long, putting the salt into large turtle shells that served as vats. It would have been almost impossible to transport the salt by land to the village of Dolores; the only roads are narrow pathways through the thicket, and the soil is so rocky and uneven that it would have been very tiresome to walk, much more so to carry a load."
|Looking across to the west side of the Salinas Grande|
The Spanish Salt Survey of 1605 stated that Isla Mujeres produced around 650 tons of salt annually, however in 1977 one of the Aztlan members interviewed a long-time islander Don Ausencio Magaña, who thought the total would be closer to 100 tons annually. Around 1974 the three salt pans were abandoned, and they became an unofficial location to dispose of household garbage.
At some point between 1979 and the present time the Salinas del Cañotal which is now referred to as the Salinas Grande became a city park. It has been refurbished with a wide and relatively smooth walking or biking pathway that circumnavigates the Salinas, along with lighting and benches. The concrete walls, surrounding the Salinas Grande, are repainted every three years in the personal colours of the current presidente/mayor. We have been through the purple and orange administration, then the pink and blue administration, and we have now entered the new navy blue and orange period. Colourful!
A side benefit to the Salinas being cleaned up is that there is a variety of birds that has taken up residence in the former salt pans. We have seen spoonbills, herons, egrets, frigate birds, and gulls of course. Good photo-ops for nascent National Geographic photographers!
It always amazes me what information can be found on the internet. But I wouldn't have thought to research the salt works without the original comment from Freddy Medina who started me on this quest.