Maras – An Ordinary Village With An Extraordinary Asset
In the heart of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, between Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, lies the small village of Maras. It’s a typical, sleepy Andean village with worn white paint on the adobe or stone walls, and narrow cobbled streets.
Despite appearances, this is not yet another village. It is blessed with a geological wonder that men have exploited for centuries. It is on the slopes of the Qaqawiñay mountain, 7 or 8 km north of the village, that it all happens.
A spring of highly salted water is miraculously flowing out of the rocks, 3380 m above sea level. It had already caught the eye of the Chanapata People (a pre-Inca civilization), and then developed by the Incas who started to build the terraced evaporation ponds to harvest the salt.
So here I was, on a small road in the middle of the Andes, marveling at this mountainous scenery from the car. My guesthouse in Ollantaytambo just had a call to make to arrange this little trip, with a driver who knows his way around the most lost roads you can imagine.
At the end of a sharp turn, the driver suddenly stopped and advised to take a closer look down the valley. Hundreds and hundreds of white ponds were covering the mountain, which left me awe-struck.
For sure, the Maras salt mine is one of the most surprising places you can see in the region. We may be accustomed to see salt pans along the seashore, but on a mountain high in the Andes? I don’t know about you, but I had never seen that before!
Address: 8 km (5 mi) north of Maras, Peru.
GPS: 13°18’14.41″S, 72° 9’14.50″W
Best way to go: With a car and driver from Ollantaytambo.
Entrance fee: 10 soles (about 3 USD)
Duration of visit: 45 mins – 1 hour
Best season: April to October
How Does It All Work?
The salted water comes from an undergroud stream that emerges from the mountain in a natural spring. That’s where Human genius comes into play.
The water is channeled into the network of ponds, build only with muscle power since the Inca times. The ponds are terraced on the slope of the mountain, and the water is guided from pond to pond, filling all of them. That’s where the process takes place.
The shallow ponds are left in the dry air and full sun of the Andes. Salt concentration keeps increasing as the water evaporates, and it deposits. It is then ready to be harvested.
Over the centuries, the salt pans have been extended and upgraded. Nowadays, they are shared among the inhabitants of Maras. There are around 3000 or 4000 ponds, and each family exploits a few.
This visit felt a little like a revenge. It was my third trip to Peru, and the third time I was roaming the Sacred Valley. Twice before, I had well noticed this intriguing white mountain slope, without having enough time to take a closer look. Blame packed itineraries. This time, I made a point to go.
When you get to the entrance, you are greeted with the usual souvenir stalls featuring all the colorful local handicraft, plus baggies of salt, of course. Was it already too late? Had mass tourism taken over this place and turned it into an Andean Disneyland, making more money from tourism than from salt?
It’s true that the Maras salt mines have caught the attention of more and more travelers in the past years.
It is indeed very easy to visit the salt mines from Ollantaytambo or Urubamba, either with an organized tour or with a private car and driver that any hostel in the area can find for you for an affordable fee. The most common is to arrange a tour covering the Maras salt pans and the Inca ruins of Moray, which are nearby.
Many visitors also choose to cover Maras, Moray and often the village of Pisac (famous for its traditional market) as a day trip in the Sacred Valley of the Incas from Cusco.
With so many easy ways to visit Maras, I certainly had good reasons to be afraid of what I would find there! The lost little village of Maras is not really lost anymore.
As I crossed the last stall to enter the mine, my fears vanished. As soon as you arrive, you can’t help but be blown away by this seemingly endless patchwork of ponds. Their color range from bright white to brown and sometimes almost orange, with all the hues in between.
The atmosphere is quite special. There were very few tourists, and some locals working hard in their pond or fixing others with their shovels. It’s a little like being thrown back in time, witnessing activities that has taken place here for centuries.