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 ponds are 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!

Quick Info

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

Salineras de Maras

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.

Maras Salt Ponds Video

My experience at the Maras salt pans in one minute!

 

Visiting Maras

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 finding a whole crowd there! This lost little village 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.

 

Maras Salt Ponds

 

The atmosphere is quite special. There were very few tourists, and locals working hard fixing their pond with their shovels. It’s a little like being thrown back in time, witnessing scenes that have taken place here for centuries.

If you walk a little further from the most obvious path, walking on the edge of the ponds, you will find yourself totally alone in this surreal place.

It may not be the first site you think of visiting in the Sacred Valley, and you might be tempted to skip it and keep it for next time, like I did twice. Don’t.

You can see many Inca ruins, beautiful mountains and colorful markets in the region, but the Salineras de Maras are truly unique and should definitely give it the attention it deserves.

Maras Salt Ponds

Virtual Tour Map

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Maras Salt Ponds

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20 Comments
  1. Tamara Elliott 12 months ago

    Your photography is STUNNING and I just love how you put the 360 photo as the feature image!! That is so cool! Is it a plug-in?

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Hey Tamara, thank you for your kind words! I actually create and host the virtual tour outside of the wordpress installation, and embed it in the header of my page, between the navigation bar and the post title (and I don’t use any automated featured image function) 🙂

  2. Debra Schroeder 12 months ago

    Your photos of the salt pans are cool. Seeing them in person must have been awesome. That 360 degree feature rocks (pun intended)! 🙂

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Haha thanks Debra! Happy you enjoyed it!

  3. Medha 12 months ago

    I actually haven’t heard of these salt mines in Peru so this is interesting and informative for me. You’ve been to Peru thrice? That’s so cool! And I love all your pictures, especially the 360 degree ones!

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Thanks a lot Medha, it was indeed my 3rd trip to Peru, and I still have so much left to see there!

  4. Nisha 12 months ago

    Salt pans on top of mountains! Before I read I thought it would be like Wieliczka in Poland or Cardona in Spain which I have visited. But this is just amazingly different. Your 360 photos does make the reading all the more interesting.

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Thank you very much Nisha! I had never heard of the salt mines you mention, the world is full of surprising places!

  5. Marvi 12 months ago

    Wow.. This is my first time to hear about Salt Pans and it looks incredible! Glad you’ve decided to explore this on your 3rd visit.. Would’ve been quiet a miss if you hadn’t.. Nature and people working together can indeed create amazing things (and structures)! Loved your video btw! 🙂

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Yes it would have been a waste to not visit it, glad you liked it Marvi!

  6. Alli 12 months ago

    These photos are wonderful and capture the remarkable essence of the place! The video is great – inspires me to create some of my own 🙂

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Thank you Alli! Happy you liked it 🙂

  7. Lois Alter Mark 12 months ago

    My goodness, this is remarkable. I am shocked that I’ve never heard of Salineras de Maras before but I’m so glad you’ve shared this gem with us. Will definitely have to take a trip there before it becomes a top tourist destination. Absolutely stunning!

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Thank you so much! The salt mines are already getting quite popular, I believe visiting it in late afternoon helps avoiding major crowds.

  8. Sandy N Vyjay 12 months ago

    Maras is indeed a wonder of nature harnessed by the ingenuity of Man. What a sight it must be, looking down at the salt pans from the mountains. It was really good that you did not find too many tourists at the place. That meant you were able to have a really immersive experience of the place.

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Hey Sandy, thanks for the comment! Indeed I was lucky to have this wonderful place with only a few people 🙂

  9. Lauren 12 months ago

    I’ve never seen anything quite like this before! These photos are spectacular. I can only imagine what it would look like in person. As per your advice, I certainly won’t skip it when I go to Peru!

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Thanks Lauren! Yes, don’t follow my bad example of procrastinating, and do plan some time to visit it 🙂

  10. Jennifer Melroy 12 months ago

    It looks like the rice terraces in Southeast Asia but with salt. Sites like this remind me that the ancients are so much smarter than we give them credit for. They developed some amazing tech without all the modern adventures we have. Did you bring some salt home?

    • Author
      Julien 12 months ago

      Hey Jennifer thanks for commenting, the Incas were indeed amazing engineers and all of the Inca ruins we can find today are simply amazing. I did buy a little bag of salt from the mines!

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