Salt has been Lanzarotes fastest dissolving industry. Earlier this century, one of the islands major sources of income, the salt industry has since collapsed. The effect on the landscape has been to leave Lanzarotes once prolific salt pans forlorn, derelict and empty. Such pans, which once produced salt for export all over the world, are dotted throughout the island and are now silent reminders of former days and the ever--changing fortunes of economics.
Baked in salt
Fishing once relied heavily on the islands salt industry in the pre--war days before freezing at sea became common place. Huge stocks of salt were used to preserve the catch when boats spent long weeks fishing without refrigeration.
When freezing facilities became widespread, demand for salt rapidly diminished and many of the islands salt pans, like the hundreds of islanders employed within them, found themselves redundant. Scores of the smaller salt pans now lie derelict, abandoned entirely, with only a creaking decaying windmill standing over them as a frail monument to a once thriving island industry.
Lanzarotes five-star hotel, "Las Salinas" is built on the site of old salt pans. And much of Costa Teguise spreading south towards Arrecife and north towards Punta Mujeres was once dotted with salt pans like giant chessboards on the landscape.
One of the most recent salt pans to dissolve into history was at Matagorda on the road leading to the airport, just to the north of Puerto del Carmen. An area of some 400,000 square metres, with huge tracts given over to salt production now houses a major holiday development.
Salt was once so important to the islanders that it played, and still does play, a major role in the May festival of Corpus Christi on Lanzarote.
The religious holiday is celebrated throughout the other Canary Islands, and in peninsular Spain, by decorating the streets in lovely designs made entirely from flowers.
On Lanzarote, since flowers were never exactly in abundance, the inventive islanders exploited the locally available material of salt. They dyed huge quantities of salt various bright colours, reds, greens, yellows and blues and produced delightful street patterns. Some patterns would be recognisably religious symbols, like the dove of peace. Others would take the form of startling abstract shapes, characterised by brilliant colour and intricate designs.
Some years ago, the festival in Lanzarote was so grandiose that the pavement designs spread from the square in front of the Church of San Gines in Arrecife, snaking right along the towns main shopping road, Calle Leon y Castillo, before winding their way through the backstreets to return to the square. Pavements and streets en route were brought to life with the many--coloured salt designs.
Today the festival is much smaller with only a handful of designs laid out around the San Gines square. In fact, preparations for a recent festival were so uncertain that even the day before the holiday, the local priest was unsure whether the festival would be held. Officials from the island government said the festival had been cancelled since Corpus Christi was no longer an official fiesta.
However, parishioners from San Gines defied the offical ban and carried on the tradition, decorating the church square. It is perhaps a sad reflection that traditions like the Corpus Christi salt alfombras (carpets) seem to be a dying breed on Lanzarote, despite their usefulness, not only as a reminder of the past, but also as a tourist attraction.
However, one salt pan on the island which has become a tourist attraction - and also produces a considerable amount of salt too - is at Janubio in Lanzarotes south west. The salt flats here still produce more than 15,000 tons of salt every year, although the figure represents only one third of the quantity produced 40 years ago.
The method of salt extraction was introduced in 1895 and has changed little since last century. Large wooden staves known as palancas de madera, are employed, with sea water passing through narrow channels into ponds where the water simply condenses.
The residue then passes through wooden ducts into salt pans where the process is completed, leaving bright sparkling crystals of salt.
A Lanzarote historian, Agustin de la Hoz claimed a port once existed at Janubio, citing evidence that a "shipment of limestone left the Port of Janubio in 1609, bound for Tenerife".
According to the historical document, the limestone was needed in the construction of the Church of the Conception in La Laguna, Tenerife. De la Hoz believed the port at Janubio was destroyed by the eruptions of Timanfaya during the devastating years 1730--36, although there is no physical evidence to suggest the existence of such a port.