The Salt That’s Made From the Tears of the Incas
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
You might never see the humble seasoning the same way again.
What should be a 30-minute drive from Urubamba ends up taking well over an hour-and-a-half when our taxi gets caught up in a funeral procession. As closing time at the Salineras draws near and the destination seems as distant as ever, we consider turning around and heading back to town for a couple of pisco sours and a llama steak. But then we crest one last hill and glimpse — way down below — a glistening patchwork of trapezoidal ponds that glimmer 50 shades of apricot in the crepuscular air.
Unlike most of the tourist attractions in this neck of the woods in Peru, the Salineras de Maras is not an archaeological ruin, in spite of the fact that salt production on the site predates the Incas. For seven centuries, the families from the nearby village of Maras have channeled the briny water that spouts from a natural spring — containing, the legend goes, the tears of Inca Ayar Cachi — through thousands of evaporation ponds, and they’re still doing it the same way today.
Walk on one of the bright-white, crusty walls that separate the ponds before stopping to dip a finger in the canal that feeds them.
The whole setup is delightfully haphazard and low-key — you can walk around at your leisure — and when it’s late in the afternoon, there’s hardly anyone around (the official website says there’s an average of 2,000 visitors per day). Walk on one of the bright-white, crusty walls that separate the ponds before stopping to dip a finger in the canal that feeds them. It’s lukewarm and very, very salty. Take in the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped apus (sacred mountains) in the background. And don’t be afraid to explore the ponds or to practice your Spanish with the friendly artisans.
On a landing no larger than a coffee table, I almost collide with a man in a wide-brimmed hat and a fake Argentine soccer shirt who’s lugging a plastic sack, one of Maras’ few concessions to modernity, of freshly harvested salt up the mountain. Juan (in my oxygen-deprived state, I forgot to ask his surname) puts his cargo down and gives me a two-minute crash course in salt harvesting, which only takes place during the dry season, June to November.
“We fill our ponds to a depth of 5 centimeters and leave them to evaporate for three days,” he says. This process is repeated for a total of 30 days, after which the salt is scraped into piles and left to dry in baskets. Each pond produces three grades of salt, with Flor de Sal being the most prized. “It’s hard work,” says Juan, as he rushes to catch the truck that will take him back to his village, “but it’s good work.”
I also head home, on the extremely direct corte camino (shortcut) to Urubamba that’s been used by locals for centuries. After zigzagging down the hillside for about 15 minutes, there’s a tiny settlement guarded by a few teenagers with cheap smartphones and a couple of enormous turkeys. There, in a ramshackle restaurant overlooking the sacred Urubamba River, I order that llama steak. The waiter doesn’t seem to object to me bringing my own salt.
GO THERE: SALINERAS DE MARAS
- Directions: The Salineras de Maras are located 31 miles from Cusco. You can visit on a tour, rent a driver for a day or take a taxi from Urubamba. Alternatively, ask the locals to point out the corte camino. Map.
- Cost: $3 entrance fee, and the site closes at 5 p.m. daily.
- What to Eat: Restaurant Inkasal has great views of the salineras and a hearty menu.
- Pro Tip: If you’re not going to make it to Peru anytime soon, you can order a jar of Maras Salt online.