Before I discuss thee salt mines (more properly, salt flats or salt ponds) of Maras, Peru (Salineras de Maras), let me discuss the history of the Andes Mountains. The Andes Mountains are a belt of mountains along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone of volcanic activity that encompasses the Pacific rim of the Americas as well as the Asia-Pacific region. The Andes are the result of tectonic plate processes that occurred anywhere between 200 million and 60 million years ago.
Salt ponds are most commonly found on coastal plains, filled with seawater from the incoming tide. The Maras slat ponds are at an altitude of about 11,000 feet! That’s a long way to the ocean, but, remember, the Andes Mountains were once part the sea floor. The movement of tectonic plates pushed the seabed up to form the Andes and sea salt was locked into the rocks.
It is assumed that the Maras salt flats were created more than 2000 years ago, and some estimates are that they were created more than 3000 years ago. Consider this – salt was considered so valuable by the Romans, that their soldiers were paid with salt (although this ay actually be a myth). Whatever the case, salt has always been a valuable commodity.
The Maras salt ponds are fed by an underground spring which is created by the waters from the lofty mountain range surrounding the valley. The spring, as it flows through the mountains, carries along heavy silts and salt. No one knows who or why the first salt ponds were created but, thousands of years after they were, they are still being used by the native population.
The salt ponds have been meticulously built by hand over many generations of the native population. Each pond measures roughly between 50 and 100 square feet and have a depth of around 4 to 12 inches – position, the layout of the land and altitude seem to be governing their size.
The proper maintenance of the feeder channel, the side walls and the water-entry notch, the pond’s bottom surface, the quantity of water, and the removal of accumulated salt deposits requires close cooperation among the community of users, a cooperative system that predates the Incas.
The salt mines traditionally have been available to any person wishing to harvest salt. The owners of the salt ponds must be members of the community, and families that are new to the community wishing to propitiate a salt pond get the one farthest from the community. The size of the salt pond assigned to a family depends on the family’s size. Usually there are many unused salt pools available to be farmed. Any prospective salt farmer need only locate an empty currently unmaintained pond, consult with the local informal cooperative, learn how to keep a pond properly within the accepted communal system, and start working.
So, all of this is interesting from a scientific and historic perspective, but, other than that, why would you want to visit the Maras salt ponds?
Well, check out this series of pictures. This first one is a picture my wife took while she was the of the viewing area (the Mirador).
This next picture is one she took as she got a bit closer.
And, finally, this is a picture of the salt ponds when she got even closer.
I think this is just incredible, and that this view is worth the trip alone.
So, how is the salt created? Water, naturally salt-infused, flows down from the mountains and settles in the pans. The intense Andean sun leads to a rapid concentration of the salt solution, while repeatedly fresh mineral water may be added. The salt falls out as soon as the mineral rich solution is over-saturated, forming salt “flowers” on the surface. The salt is then extracted with simple tools.
To get to the salt ponds you will most likely hire a local guide and then hike up the designated path that leads along the upper ridge. Note that as of As of September 2019, MaraSal S.A., the company that owns the salt ponds, announced that tourists are no longer allowed to walk in close proximity to the salt ponds due to contamination.
While she was at the salt ponds, Donna bought “Sal de Maras con Hierbas Aromaticas.” I’m not one to rave about salt, but I will rave about this one.
It contains black pepper, pink pepper from the salt ponds, achiote (a spice and coloring agent extracted from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana shrub), garlic, cumin, thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay leaf. It is a phenomenal salt.
She also bought “Sal de los Incas Rosada Ahumada” – this is Pink salt from the Maras salt ponds that has been smoked without chemicals, so it takes on a black color. It has a bit of a funky odor, but is still great salt.
You can buy these on a lot of web sites, most of which use Peruvian currency numbers to specify the price.
If you want to shop with Amazon, be prepared to buy bigger packages than the small containers I showed, but the prices are pretty tame.
Here are some Amazon links. If you scroll to the bottom of the link page, you will find many more links, so you can shop around. Mind you, these salts are literally millions of years old!
Herb salt: https://amzn.to/2T1lOwA
Smoked Salt: https://amzn.to/39ZZwlI