close

News WrapGet Handpicked Stories from our editors directly to your mailbox


Tourists can learn 500-year-old trade of salt-making in Chile

A local salt-maker (l.) in Cahuil, a coastal town in central Chile. Photograph:( Agencia EFE )

Agencia EFE Pichilemu, Chile Feb 12, 2019, 11.47 AM (IST)

Tourists who come to Cahuil, a coastal town in central Chile, can experience a place of a very different nature and in a few hours learn a 500-year-old trade - salt-making.

This unique experience, rough, tough and something like mining, is offered in the southern O'Higgins region, thanks to a Central University project financed by the regional government that gets tourists working for several hours extracting salt.

The visitor can dig into the savoury substance deposited by the sea in rectangular pools, where after several months the sun evaporates the water, leaving a crust of salt on the bottom.

Extracting it is the work of salt-makers using techniques inherited from their grandfathers.

The remaining water is removed beforehand with motor pumps, which is the "only modern technology" used in the process. Then, after the mud is cleared away, the salt is tamped down and left until it is dried by the sun.

"We soak it with water once more, sweep it over with tree branches from one pool to the next, smoothly, until what is left is a 10-centimetre thick crust of salt, which we shovel into wheelbarrows and put in bags," Agustin Moraga, one of the local salt-makers, told EFE.

That unusual experience is available to tourists, guided by salt-makers of the region, located some 200 kilometres southwest of Santiago.
"Visitors do exactly the same work of salt production as the locals. 

Afterwards, they can take away the salt they collected as souvenirs," Eduardo Gonzalez, owner of the Pichilemu Tourism company, which operates the so-called Route of Salt, told EFE.

The history of the salt pools began 500 years ago in the pre-Columbian era when aborigines of the area extracted the product with ancestral techniques, but it wasn't until the year 1700 that the activity acquired a proto-industrial character based on the salt-making practices still in use today.

Elena Parraguez, who has lived her whole life here, told EFE that the work is done the same way as it was 300 years ago, "with a shovel, the pools, the cleaning, it's all the same," she said.

Some 20 people work in the salt pools, having inherited the trade from their fathers and grandfathers.

All these men are over age 50, some 62 per cent of them have only primary education, and this is a way for them to earn a living.

They were the ones who in 2013 were declared Living Human Treasures by UNESCO, for their contribution to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Chile and the unique character of their trade, which preserves the identity of the area.

That same year, the Chilean National Industrial Property Institute (INAPI) gave the salt of Cahuil the denomination of origin, since it is a product that can only be produced in this area, due to it geographic conditions and unique production processes.

In fact, the salt of Cahuil is unique in Chile since it comes from the sea, unlike that in the north, which is mined from the salt flats of the Altiplano.
Therefore, the only salt extracted from this area can use commercially the denomination "Salt of Cahuil."

Whoever gets to Cahuil can also visit the lush wetlands of the Nilahue Estuary and the Salt Pools of Cahuil, Barrancas, Pichilemu and Valdivia, a place with an infinity of birdlife that makes it an interesting landscape for taking photos.

There one can swiftly observe some 46 bird species, from black-necked swans to mallards, from herons to ravens to so many more, all living in a magical natural environment with a hybrid ecosystem (a blend of fresh water and salt water).

When it comes time to dine, tourists can taste the gastronomy of the area made with sea salt, unique seasonings, quinoa (a seed from the Andes), local-habitat birds and other regional specialities.

They can also visit the watermills of Pañul and Rodeillo, which, with their rustic but very efficient engineering, have ground for more than 50 years the different grains like wheat, barley and quinoa produced in the area to make handcrafted flour, even as the 21st century progresses.

Story highlights

This unique experience, rough, tough and something like mining, is offered in the southern O'Higgins region, thanks to a Central University project financed by the regional government that gets tourists working for several hours extracting salt.