At two o’clock in the morning scores of men are already ankle deep in the pink water of the shallow lagoons located in an isolated part of the Yucatán Peninsula, ready to start another day of work.
Many of them used to be fisherman — others worked in construction — but for the past year they’ve put their nets and tools aside and dedicated themselves to a different pursuit: harvesting pink gold.
The gold they seek, however, is not a colored version of the precious metal but rather a mineral ubiquitous in oceans and on dinner tables all over the world: salt.
For thousands of years, Mayan people living in Yucatán have harvested the valuable commodity from the pink lagoons that abut the Gulf of Mexico, later transporting it to other regions of the Mayan empire.
Today, in the community of Xtampú — located on the northern tip of the peninsula — Raúl May and more than 30 other men work to extract and sell the pink salt and at the same time recover an ancestral tradition.
Prior to rekindling the practice, nobody had extracted salt from the lagoons for more than two decades.
The whole process to commercialize the mineral in bulk takes eight months so to support themselves as they wait for their next big payday, the men sell one-kilogram bags of pink salt to tourists who come to admire the rare natural attraction.
Each bag costs just 10 pesos, a far cry from the 115 pesos (US $6) a 200-gram jar goes for in a supermarket. When making their purchase, visitors always ask the same question: why is the water pink?
The answer: thousands of small aquatic crustaceans known as artemia or brine shrimp inhabit the water and cluster together to give the lakes their distinctive hue.
They are also eaten by flamingos who live in the area, another reason why tourists frequent the village also known as Las Coloradas.
Once the men have extracted salt from one of the 123 lagoons in which they work, they leave it to dry. Next, they wash it with fresh water to help crystalize the salt after which they place it in 10-kilo sacks.
Currently, the cooperative, which operates under the Mayan name Meyah Ta Ab (Salt Workers), only has a contract with one store which pays them 680 pesos (US $36) for each tonne of salt they deliver.
However, the 30 families involved in the business were granted a 50-year concession to harvest salt in the area by the federal Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) and are hopeful that they can increase their profits and generate more employment.
They are also hoping for a good yield during May and June, traditionally the best months for salt extraction. The workers believe each lagoon contains between 20 and 50 tonnes of the mineral.
Despite starting the work day early in order to avoid the pink water burning their feet and hands, May’s skin and that of his colleagues is hardened and leathery from the harsh Yucatán sun they work under.
The father of four told the newspaper El Universal that he hopes he can offer his children a better future so they don’t have to come to work in the briny, pink water under the scorching sun but, he added, he would like them to continue their traditions.
May pointed out that salt is the only rock that human beings eat every day.
His wife, Catalina Akec Uc, also contributes to the business by cooking for the workers. She and her husband stay near the lagoons at night in a makeshift hut to ensure that nobody contaminates or mistreats their income source.
Akec’s grandfather once harvested salt from the same lakes and she assured El Universal that cooking with the unique product gives dishes a special flavor.
Source: El Universal (sp)