the salt of the earth – project Good Ol’ Ollie (part V)

Click here for more information about project Good Ol’ Ollie.

Maras, a tiny and dusty village that lies around a 50 km distance from Cusco, is home to one of the most important salt mines in the world. From here fine quality, organically produced and pink-coloured salt is distributed over the entire world, where it is sold in different price-ranges, but the best stuff is used by renown chefs in the world’s top-notch cuisines.

It is a cloudy, somewhat moody morning as I squeeze out of the overfull van. The driver has dropped me off at the entrance of the long and dusty path that will lead me to Salineras. I let my eyes glance over the softly shaped green grasshills gradually dissolving in the grayish-blue morning haze. The scenery is more than poetic and fulfilled with the energy of enthusiasm I start the hike, meanwhile going out of my mind to capture with my lense the beauty unfolding everywhere around me. Three donkeys pass me from behind, followed by their owner. I grin out loud over the clumsiness as they are moving forward, dancing around each other like puppies, causing the ropes with which they are tied to each other to get caught up completely. The farmer seems utterly unimpressed. On the sides of the path red and yellow flowers vibrate with colour, jumping off an otherwise cloudy canvas. Silence resonates in my ears, occasionally interrupted by the chattering of energetic, fast-paced ladies leading their sheep towards new pastures.

I have been walking for a bit over an hour when the path goes around another mountain-fold and then the salt mine appears in sight – a valley, surrounded by earth-coloured hills and covered with thousands of pinkish-white little squares, stretches out before me. A cowboy and his horse fill up the lower part of the image I see before me, and the picture is complete.

After a steep descend, I arrive at the mines where, apart from the presence of a considerable amount of tourists, there is not more than a handful of people at work. One of them is carrying what appear to be large pieces of rock covered in crystals on his back from the one side of the mine to the other, but he is the exception. Soon I will find out that it is not the season. Production does not take place until the rain season has started, usually around the month of May. June is cleaning month – the basins are being cleared out and then the ‘growing’ of salt can begin. The salt is won from water originating in one of the mountains above the mine that is being led down and spread over the plentiful basins through a system of numerous narrow canals. Once in these puddles, the water will evaporate and eventually the baths will be filled with thick layers of salt by the end of the rain season (October-November).

The ‘harvesting’ of salt in Maras is a tradition as old as Incan times, which is why salt from here is suitably called ‘Sal de los Inkas’. And it still is, as it is only the people from Maras itself and a neighbouring district that are allowed to have terrain in the mines. This safeguards the local economy, keeping the means in the hands of the families who have lived here since ancient times. And that is how it should be, if you ask me.

[click on images to enlarge]

Practical how’s & abouts:

– entrance fee: s./10 (new Peruvian soles)

– transport: in collectivo from Cusco in the direction of Urubamba, get off at ‘Maral’. From there take another collectivo to Maras and get off at the entrance of the path that leads to the salt mines (1-2 hour walk). OR: from Maral take a collectivo or taxi directly to the mines (expect tourist prices).

N.B. Many people combine a visit to Salineras with the sites of Moray and/or Chinchero. In case you don’t want to walk, you can ask a taxi driver at Maral to be your driver and guide for the day, and they will give you a full tour (again: tourist prices). Moray and Chinchero can be accessed with the boleto turístico (s./130, allows you to visit 16 different places within 10 days).

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