Salt Production in Yucatan

Beryl Gorbman

The salt dunes of Las Coloradas, Yucatan with storm coming in

Long before the Spanish invaded this part of the world, the Maya were extracting salt from the lagoons of the north coast of Yucatan. A peculiar combination of natural circumstances allows the generation of high-quality salt from the natural estuaries, baked under an unrelenting sun. The water gradually evaporates, leaving salt.

This salt is distinctively different from mined salt and according to some chefs, far superior.

The ria, or river, that extends from Rio Lagartos into Las Coloradas is normally separated from the sea by a strip of land. This preserves the lagoons of the rias for making salt. On several ocassions in the last twenty years, hurricanes have eradicated the barrier between the ocean and the freshwater rias, ruining the production of salt. Now, ISYSA (Industrial Salineros de Yucatan SA de CV), the privately owned salt company, has erected plastic dividers intended to prevent this. The plastic dividers are hidden under mounds of sand.

The ria salt production ponds are a spectacular pink, due to the gradual evaporation of the water and the high concentration of salt. How often do you see a pink lake?

A pink saltpan

Foam at the edge of the pink lake is pure salt.

This all sounds dry and dull, so I will skip the more technical explanations and refer you to some good articles onine like this one from Geosynthetic Magazine that explain the process in detail.

You can find a good explanation of how the salt extraction process from the lagoons actually works in this article produced by scientists at several Merida academic institutions.

However, superficial as we try to be on this site, focussing on the picturesque and thrilling, the sight of the salt dunes and the bright pink salination ponds is nothing short of spectacular.

The process has been refined over the last century, and now the sea salt production facility on the north coast ships salt all over Mexico and Latin America. ISYSA produces about half a million tons of salt per year.

The last time I visited Las Coloradas was twenty years ago, when it was tiny and quiet. There was a short wooden pier where small freighters could tie up and carry salt to various destinations. Now there is a complex and graceful metal structure that transports the salt overland and funnels it into more than one waiting ship at a time.

To transport packaged salt to freighters

This was a commercial trip, as one of our party was collecting salt to be evaluated by experts for possible use as fancy artisanal salt from Yucatan. Since it was Sunday and the plant was closed, we drove into town to try to find a sample of salt. The villagers, who didn’t seem used to dealing with outsiders, kindly produced a plastic bag with about a pound of salt for us and wouldn’t accept any money.

We drove to the beach and saw that fishermen had just dismembered a manta ray and were carrying off the “wings.”

Dismembered manta ray and lobster tails

Making our way around the town, we followed a huge flock of circling magnificent frigate birds who were watching some of the villagers practicing the jarana (Yucatecan folk dance) for their upcoming fiesta.

Magnificent huipile

Las Coloradas is about fifteen miles east of Rio Lagartos. You get to cross a dubious looking single-lane, hand-made wooden bridge over the ria. We didn’t see any tourist accommodations or restaurants in Las Coloradas.

View from bridge

The area from well before Rio Lagartos up through Las Coloradas is a part of the Ria Lagartos Biosphere. There are many species of protected birds and animals here, including turtles, crocodiles and of course flamingos.

Personal Anecdote about Las Coloradas

About 20 years ago, I drove out there alone on a side-trip to Rio Lagartos. The town was tiny then, with a big deserted beach with many birds. I parked the car and took my old Nikon film camera out to get some good bird pics. I had walked about 200 yards, when I heard a voice yelling at me to stop. I turned around and there, in the distance, huffing and puffing after me, was a short, heavy-set man in a uniform.

I waited obediently, thinking that no one knew where I was, that there was no one else in sight, and other thoughts single women have in these kinds of situations. But when he arrived, he simply wanted to know what I was doing. He proudly explained that he was the captain of the port of Las Coloradas. The introductions over, he asked whether I’d like to see the small freighter tied up to the pier. I said yes.

We walked to the ship and climbed up a vertical rope ladder, hanging down the side. As I breached the top and struggled onto the deck, I looked up to see about a dozen very scurvy looking men, staring at me. Uh oh, I said. I’ve really gone and done it this time. They were all in their 20s and 30s, dressed in dirty rags, uncombed, and hungry looking. The boat was NOT shipshape. My friend the port captain introduced me to the ship captain, who looked no different from his crew.

The ship captain invited me to see his navigation room. What’s a girl to do, I thought. In for a penny….etc. I admired the sophisticated looking instruments in his navigation area and he invited me to the dining area for refreshments. There were only two or three of the crew following us around at this point. We all sat down at a long table and one of the men presented me with a pint bottle of home-made looking Jamaican rum (hand-drawn label). I knew it would be a very bad idea to drink with the crew, so I declined, but they insisted I take the bottle as a souvenir, which I did. They came back with a coke for me, with a lot of ice in a glass.

Somehow, I suspected the ice was not purified water. Just a hunch. I poured some coke into the glass and drank it down quickly. I had read that if you drink fast, before the ice has a chance to melt, the effects on your stomach are minimal. (And it was true.)

After the coke, I said I needed to get back, and they escorted me down the difficult ladder and to my car. They were complete gentlemen and I thanked them for the tour. Unfortunately, I neglected to take their pictures. I could kick myself.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
This entry was posted in Merida Expat Life, Pictures and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Salt Production in Yucatan

  1. DocRod says:

    Sea salt is one of the greatest muscle relaxants and detoxificants. Although more expensive than epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) it is more effective.

  2. Kinbote says:

    “We didn’t see any tourist accommodations or restaurants in Las Coloradas.”

    Yet! As we speak, I’m making arrangements to have several of Las Coloradas’ most elderly and vulnerable villagers booted from their homes so that I can build a beautiful little boutique bed and breakfast where I’ll raise a family of adorable pug/Boston terrier mixes, called “bugs,” and bake delicious artisanal scones from fresh, organic, locally-sourced ingredients. I’m thinking of calling it Posada Lagos Rosados.

    And people will say, “Posada Lagos Rosados? Oh, yes, it’s that wonderful little Bed and Breakfast with those adorable dogs and those to-die-for scones! Have you tried the mandarin black currant?”

    • Chuck says:

      So, is the B&B idea just in jest, or the real thing? Curious, since I will be in Las Coloradas in early Feb, 2013 on salt matters and wondering if it needs to be a day trip from Merida, or if I can overnight in Coloradas.

  3. Marc Olson says:

    Interesting article, and timely for me. I was recently out at Sisal and wondering what the story is on the huge abandoned saltworks there, just to the east of the pueblo.

  4. D.J. says:

    Is this salt better for rubbing into wounds?

    Will it kill your spouse faster than regular salt?

    If you are worth your weight in salt, but the salt is worth more, does this mean you can lose weight but still be as valuable?

    • BG says:

      It may be better for rubbing into wounds as it is noticeably saltier than mined salt. Are you thinking of exchanging it for mined salt in your salt shakers so your spouse with high blood pressure will succumb more rapidly. What an original idea. As for your third, and more existential question, I think only you know the answer.

  5. fishinisfun says:

    BG writes:
    “The ria salt production ponds are a spectacular pink, due to the gradual evaporation of the water and the high concentration of salt. ”

    For the flamingos’ sake, you’re a bit off the mark. Overly romantic? Si. Factual? No.

    As happens around the world, various types of brine shrimp or fairy shrimp grow in both fresh and salty bodies of water. The shrimp are pinkish in color, which makes the critters that eat them pink too: think flamingos, wild cut-throat trout, et al.

  6. lynne says:

    you are such a good photographer

  7. BG says:

    Added 8/9/11 – Lately I have been trying flavored salts. They are quite inexpensive in the US and you can buy small quantities. Some is smoked, some tastes like bacon, etc. It’s a wonderful addition to food.

  8. Chuck says:


    While in the navigation room of the freighter did you happen to catch a glimpse at the depth sounder? I am hearing varying stories regarding the depth of the water at the salt dock – anywhere from 11 feet to 14 feet, with half a foot of tidal swing. Important consideration! May have to hire a local fisherman to take me out there with a handheld sounder to see for myself.

    • BG says:

      I’m afraid I wouldn’t know a depth sounder if I saw one. They explained all the gauges to me, but I can’t remember. I was too busy being nervous.

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