The Maras Salt Flats in Peru

Juana is an artist, a middle-aged lady who sell paintings to tourists in Urubamba.  She comes from a a family of artists.  She also sells her dad’s and daughter’s paintings.  She waits for the tourist buses to arrive at the hotel that we were staying at, and greets people with her paintings in hand as they exit the bus.  When we first arrived, our tour guide brought her on to the bus and introduced her to us.   He later joked that she was a tourist-chaser (just like an ambulance chaser).  Juana sits at a store-front across the road from the entrance to the hotel so that she can observe the comings and goings at the hotel.

We bought a couple of paintings from Juana.  During our time in Urubamba, we would greet each other whenever we saw each other in front of the hotel.  She did talk about her family.  It turned out that she was over forty years old and pregnant, a slightly risky situation in a small out-of-the-way place like Urubamba.

During our time in Peru, we came across many situations where people on the street were selling products made with their own hands to tourists. Locals would greet us in the streets and offer their wares.  And some of the stuff was quite good.  The sales pitches, in most cases, were not too aggressive.  (“No, gracias”, was my standard response if I was not interested!) Prices were reasonable.   There is a lot of honesty in the  directness of this approach, when compared to buying things in official stores, where things are often overpriced after having passed through the hands of a few middlemen, and things could also be of suspect origin (a lot of fake stuff comes from China!).

The skies were still clearing as we departed for the Maras salt flats (or salt mines, or salt pans, as some people call them) in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo get to Maras, we had to retrace the route we had taken into Urubamba.  We climbed out of the valley and drove back to a point on the main road to Cusco where we had to turn off the road and get on to the dirt road to Maras.  Just outside of Maras, we turned on to a second dirt road that led to the salt flats.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn a short while, this road narrowed and began to weave its way up and around  mountainsides.  There were blind corners to be negotiated, and the driver had to honk to make sure that it was safe to take the curve on the single lane road.  If two vehicles confronted each other, one would have to back away to a slightly wider section to let the other one through.  There was one occasion where we found a front-end loader that was doing some road work right in front of us just after we had taken a blind corner. That was an interesting encounter!  The road was reasonably busy with what looked like tourist traffic.

We finally arrived at a spot overlooking the salt flats.  It was quite the sight! (Click on the picture to see it in full resolution!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo our right, we could see the Sacred Valley with the Urubamba river flowing through it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe salt flats of Maras have been in operation since pre-Columbian times, existing even in the pre-Inca period.  (The Inca empire started in the 1400s.) The flats are fed by springs in the mountain.  There is a flow of water from the hillside to the left of the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe salt is picked up from within the mountains.  The salt exists because the land rose from the sea a long, long, time ago to form the Andes mountains!  The flats are shaped by the hands of man, and are basically evaporation ponds that are at different levels on the hillside.  The individual ponds are owned and taken care of by individual families, and the whole place operates as a cooperative effort so that all of the ponds are taken care of.  This place is still in operation as a cooperative today.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see that the stream leaving the salt flats still has salt in the water.  The stream probably feeds the Urubamba river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a different view of the salt flats from the entrance to the facility.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water from the spring that feeds the facility flows into channels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below shows waterways cut into the ground to feed the ponds. The waterways are fed by the main channels, and these further split in multiple directions to feed the ponds located in different directions.  There are gates from these waterways to the individual ponds that can be open and closed.  It is  cooperative effort to make sure that all the ponds are watered and taken care of.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce there is enough water in a pond, the inlet gate is closed, and the pond is left to dry out until a layer of salt has been deposited.  The salt has to solidify to a certain consistency before it is extracted.

Salt ponds need regular maintenance to function properly.  The bottom of the pond has to be taken care of on a regular basis to ensure proper operation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a lot of labor involved in this process.  The salt from the individual ponds needs to be extracted and carried out from the slopes without the aid of machines.

On our way out of the place we passed stores where they were selling little bags of salt in different colors from the salt flats.  We were told that the salt is also exported these days.

Our next stop after the salt flats were the Moray Incan Agricultural ruins just outside of the village of Maras.