The Astonishing Salt Ponds of the Incas: Las Salineras de Maras


A guided tour from the Sacred Valley to Chinchero or Cusco usually stops in the community of Maras. In one of the great hydraulic engineering projects of the world, the Incas built an intricate system of 5,000 salt ponds fed by small aqueducts of salt-laden spring water, a remnant of ancient seas that were trapped high and dry by the geologic uplifts millions of years ago. Water flow is regulated periodically to allow for evaporation so that the Maras families, who belong to a cooperative, can mine the salt for sale. Mining rights are only passed down to family members.

Small aqueduct that feeds the salt ponds

Small aqueduct that feeds the salt ponds

To get an appreciation for the total size of the fields, you can gaze at them from an overlook before taking the narrow, dusty road down to the parking lot.

las-salineras

Salt ponds at Las Salineras (click to enlarge)

When I arrived, the lot was packed with cars and buses. To get my first up-close look at the ponds, I first had to wend my way through stalls lining both sides of the narrow street that is the only access. The salt pans, varying in color from white to pink to tan, were as blinding as snow. This high contrast in full sun made it difficult to take good pictures. There were paths along the ponds where I could stoop down and taste the salt. The vast majority of tourists only linger at the closest ponds before leaving. To get to the other end would take a good deal of time, I suspect. The Incas were masters of terracing, and Las Salineras is no exception.

Salt here, much cheaper than buying it in Cusco, is of high quality.

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