Soaking in salt

Part of the ancient salinas in Castro Marim has been turned into an outdoor spa. Apart from a wellness experience, the mineral-rich mud and saline water ponds also offer a look into the traditional heritage of this salt-producing region. 

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2016

 

Stepping carefully into the brown water, I notice slime. Mud slips through my toes as my feet sink into the squishy bottom, all the way past my ankles. After a few hesitant steps I let myself fall backwards and float easily, my feet covered in black clay when they come up to the water surface. Surrounded by the salt pans of Castro Marim, the walls of the pond consist of clay. This certainly isn’t your normal spa. “Actually, spa isn’t the name I’d use,” founder Luís Horta Correira (52, pictured below) says. “Others called it that and it stuck, but my preference was ‘salt experience’. People normally connect ‘spa’ with expensive entry and luxury buildings, whereas we keep prices low and can’t build because of the nature reserve.”

To Luís, at least as important as providing a leisurely soak, is sharing his knowledge about salt. He talks passionately about Castro Marim’s salinas. Unlike other salt-producing towns like Tavira and Olhão, Luís says, here traditional knowledge is still kept alive. The region in the eastern Algarve is connected to salt both social-economically and environmentally. Back when there were 70 fish factories in the area, Castro Marim used to provide the local conserving and canning industry with the white stuff. But when the fishing industry declined around 1980, so did the need for salt, leaving the salinas free to the rising and falling of the tide.

Fast forward to 2000, when, driven by encouragement from the nature park, the abandoned salt ponds were put into use again. Not so much for economic reasons as for environmental ones this time: the regional birds need stable water for feeding and this is exactly what the salinas provide. Little by little the ancient salt pans were restored to their former glory; currently they make up about a third of the 2,000 hectare Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real do San António. But it wasn’t until 2008 that Luís started the company Água Mãe, which produces sea salt in a traditional way, using machines only for transport.

Over time guided tours were added and last year two of the ponds in the Salina Barquinha were turned into an open air spa. To Luís, it’s a place to unwind: “I love the quietness and the peaceful atmosphere of the salinas. It feels like an allotment garden; working in the sun with birds singing in the background.” Another reason for venturing into the wellness branch is that the entrepreneur wanted to show people the salt they produce here is different from normal table salt. “Salt is not salt. But that’s a hard message to get across,” he explains. “If people come here and see it for themselves, they will understand.”

The difference between salt and salt, lies in the minerals. If salt is produced in a traditional way and harvested by hand, these minerals are kept. But most salt is heated and cleaned by machines; chemicals are added so the minerals are lost in the industrialised process. With Castro Marim’s artisanal methods, sun, wind and mud play as important a role as the salt ponds themselves. The salinas consist of many compartments. Helped by gravity and levelling techniques, water master Vitorino Gonçalves (pictured below) leads the water from one basin to the other. This journey starts with normal sea water, consisting of about 30 grams of salt per litre. With every basin, wind and sun evaporate the water, helped by the layer of mud on the bottom which does a great job conserving the heat (salinas can reach temperatures of up to 50˚C). Thus, the salinity increases. And as the salt percentage grows, the water gets cleaned; bacteria don’t survive in the acidic environment, which gets to 300 grams of salt per litre until it reaches the pond where the salt gets collected.

Although the spa area isn’t connected to these other salinas, is deeper to allow swimming (about a metre, compared to 20cm in normal salt ponds) and less hot (29-32˚C), it works in the same way. The water consists of about 200 grams of salt per litre, similar to the Dead Sea with 180 grams/litre. Although it looks like a puddle on a dirt road after heavy rain, the water is clear. Cause of the colour and key to the wellness factor is the layer of mud on the bottom. Unlike normal mud ‘lama’, or clay ‘barro’, this stuff is called ‘argila’. It’s normally sold in cosmetic spas, good for skin (softening) and joints (anti-inflammatory). Incredibly rich in minerals, it contains 80 different ones, the main one being magnesium potassium.

These minerals are the same as in the ocean, but their concentration is higher. “It’s something that has been perfected for centuries, adding new sea water every year. Therefore: the older the salinas, the better,” Luís explains. Just like many other things, when it comes to creating salt, nature knows best and human interference should be kept to a minimum. From walking around the salinas, which is only allowed in designated areas, to the materials that are used. “You can’t use concrete in the walls of the ponds; the high concentration of salt will turn it into powder within a few months,” Luís explains.

On every front, the spa experience is connected with learning about salt production. Apart from having a salt massage and purchasing food with flor de sal, visitors can witness the harvesting. Early summer, flor de sal forms on top of the shallow pans. Every afternoon, a thin layer of the soft crystal appears on the water surface like a cream and can be scooped off with a spoon-like device. Most salt, though, is formed in the bottom of the pan at the end of summer, and three times a year a 10cm layer is harvested with a wooden tool. It’s hard work, with workers careful not to touch the mud.

Not a salt worker, I’m keen on touching and apply the black clay, which works as a gentle scrub. Aiming for as much mineral exposure as possible, I even put it in my hair (and accidentally in my ears, which isn’t the best idea). The mud soon dries up in the sun, going hard and turning dark grey. Having washed it off in the pool again, my skin feels silky soft – better than any day cream or mask. Eyes closed, I lie on my back in the water. Despite Luis’ explanations, I’m not thinking about mud or minerals, but about how good it’d be if I could just keep floating in here for the rest of the day. I’ve forgotten all about salt until I accidentally splash a drop of water in my mouth… Yuck! Yes, we’re definitely in the middle of the salinas here.

 

How to take a mud bath in four simple steps:

  1. Before entering the salt pond, exfoliate with a mixture of flor de sal and essential oils which opens the pores.
  2. Go into the salt bath. Get a pillow for your head, lie on your back, float, close your eyes and relax. Recommended maximum time in the bath: 20 minutes.
  3. On the side of the basin, apply the mud so your skin can take up the minerals. You can slap the mud on your entire body and even your hair, but don’t get it into your eyes.
  4. Relax in the sun for half an hour and let the mud coat dry. Afterwards, rinse off in the pool and take an outdoor shower for a more thorough clean.

 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2016

Posted in Features.