The local community has exclusive mining rights to the salt pans near Maras.
Photo by dachalan/Flickr
A tour of the Sacred Valley is an essential part of your exploration of the Inca Heartland in Peru. Indeed there are many ruins to visit and mountainsides to trek, but one intriguing sight which should not go unnoticed are the ancient salt pans, known as Salineras de Maras. Strategically dug into the mountainside, thousands of shallow pools filled with salt water eventually evaporate and leave behind the crystallized salt, a process that has been practiced for more than 500 years.
Salt water in the Andes?
You might be wondering how large amounts of salt deposits ended up in the middle of the Andes Mountains. Though the salt pans themselves are man-made, the water that is channeled through them comes from a subterranean natural spring, which is mixed with salt deposits from prehistoric salt lakes. Over millions of years, tectonic plate movement has buried the deposits deep beneath the mountains: the salt is accessible from an underground water flow of brine -a mixture of salt and water – that bubbles up in a natural spring near the small town of Maras.
History of the Salineras de Maras
It’s believed that the salt pans were originally constructed by the Wari civilization, which predates the Inca. However, the Inca saw the economic opportunity in harvesting the salt of Maras and expanded the salt pans further up the mountainside.
The salt crystals are carefully scraped from the sides of the pools as the brine evaporates.
Photo by Pirotek/Flickr
The salt is mined through the evaporation of the brine that is channeled into the pans. When the water evaporates, members of the local communities carefully scrape the salt crystals from the earthen surfaces. When all of the crystals are removed, the pan is filled with the salt water again – a process that has been practiced since before the time of the Inca.
The significance today
Today there are over 6,000 salt pans near Maras, and each one is no more than 13 square feet and less than 1 foot deep. Each pan is owned and mined by a local family of the Maras community, and the salt is collected and sold in local shops or nearby towns.
The salt pans are also an interesting attraction for people visiting the Sacred Valley. Travelers can explore the salt pans on a guided tour and walk the narrow salted paths between the terraces for a S/.7 (about $2) entrance fee.