Travelling to the “centre of the Earth” is the latest tourist attraction in the Algarve
It may come as a surprise to many, but 230 metres beneath the city of Loulé lies a giant labyrinth. With a total of 45km of galleries, the four-levelled maze has been dug by miners over the last 50 years and is rich in salt. The exploration of Loulé’s rock-salt mines began in 1964 with Clona Mineira de Sais Alcalinos S.A.R.L., and finally, in October 2019, they have opened it to the public. Now, this underground Pombaline town generates enormous curiosity among tourists and residents.
On arrival, visitors get a glimpse two “elevators”, through which everyone — each equipped with helmet, flashlight and vest — descends for a few short minutes before entering directly into the mine’s oldest area (located on the first level of the galleries). “Although it doesn’t look like it, the floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything around us, is salt.” So says Alexandre Andrade, an experienced engineer and the current coordinator of tourism activity at the Campina de Cima mine, in Loulé, who was our guide during the visit.
The temperature inside the mine is almost always at 23ºC and very low humidity. “We’re 30 metres below sea level,” explains Andrade. In fact, this is the only place in Portugal one can venture below sea level. The corridors are surprisingly spacious, with one of the “bigger avenues” an extensive 1.2km long and 12 meters wide.
The first stop is in the old offices, where hundreds of miners once “clocked in” every day and wrote detailed reports to prepare the next shift. With the help of a map, another guide explains our current location and how the mining process is divided into “chambers and pillars”. Further ahead, a rather interesting stop is set near one of the old brush-cutters, and while it was already out of service, it was responsible for “virtually all mining on the second floor”.
The rust-corroded giant apparatus (along with two others still in operation) boasted an impressive production of 50 tonnes per hour. Since 1989, the use of explosives has been replaced by brush-cutters, and miners exchanged their pickaxes for joysticks. “Every mine in Portugal still uses explosives except for this one,” Andrade explains. The mine also pioneered the use of diesel vehicles.
In 2005, Portuguese chemical corporation Bondalti abandoned the use of salt in the production of chlorine and lye, and Tech Salt is currently allocating the salt extracted from the mine for two purposes: animal feeding and road safety (to defrost roads). “It’s the only mine in Portugal selling salt for this and we even export to southern Spain,” Andrade reveals.
After being extracted, the salt is loaded into trucks and taken for sieving and grinding, all of which takes place in the mine. Once the salt has been granulated, it is then loaded and sent to the surface. But what is it that sets this salt apart from the rest? According to the geologist, “it has more natural substances than the one from salt pans”. It is also at least “230 million years old”, and it is not “white, but rather dark […] with 93.5% purity in sodium chloride”. With just 3% more, it could be considered by law acceptable for human consumption.
In addition to continuous mining activity and investing in tourism, the mine is “establishing more complementary fields”, such as “exhibitions and shows”. It may also be used to organise business, sports and gastronomic activities, as well as and wellbeing initiatives related to respiratory health, “which benefits [from this environment] in certain circumstances”, says Andrade. “A sanatorium for asthmatics is something relatively common in salt mines. In other types of mines there are many respiratory problems associated with inhaling silica or coal dust, but not here! This is a healthy mine,” Andrade assures. “We receive a lot of requests from people to spend a few hours down here and breathe this air and, from the feedback I’ve gotten over the years, doing this has greatly improved the quality of life of these patients.”
Since 1992, Andrade has known this underground world like the back of his hand. According to the geologist, “most of the work in the mines is exhausted with the end of mining activity”. However, in Loulé’s Campina de Cima rock-salt mine, “it’s possible to prolong the life of the mine with parallel activities, which may coexist with mining or be activated after the closure of the extraction process [thanks to] the mine’s strong safety features”.
“This is the only underground working mine in Portugal without a single fatal accident,” Andrade reveals. “The mine is operational but it has the conditions to satisfy the curiosity of ordinary people for two things that are usually inaccessible: a look into the inner workings of an extractive industry and a visit to the centre of the planet, i.e. industrial tourism and geological tourism,” he says.
While the geologist believes every mine is unique, Andrade believes this one has “a remarkable history” due to the “evolution of Portugal’s mining”, which the country often pioneered. “The mine’s walls tell a story with almost 230 million years! On a walking tour, we are confronted with the history of this geological evolution and mining activity, and at times it’s possible to get a glimpse of real the real mining activity.”
In the future, they will aim to “continue to explore and market the rock salt mineral resources at the Campina de Cima mine” as well as “reuse mining areas in an innovative way, contributing to the dissemination and promotion of this science and industry”. Andrade also stressed that the ultimate goal is “to be a reference partner in the market of rock salt; to be recognised for the quality of its products, based on the offer of innovative solutions; to ensure lasting relationships hinged on superior standards of safety and respect for the environment; and to generate value for employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers and the community”.
The tour invites guests to travel 1.3km in total for approximately two hours, permitting for anyone from the age of eight and with full mobility to be able to do so. The walking excursions take place on weekdays during the mine’s working hours, with four scheduled descents: 9.30am, 11am, 2.30pm and 4pm. Throughout the journey, the small groups are accompanied by a guide (in Portuguese, English or French), who will answer questions and unveil the mysteries of the mine.