The Saltpans of Maras
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
For many years, Shining Path guerrillas ruled here and the saltpans of Maras were off-limits to foreign visitors.
But tourists are now beginning to rediscover the extraordinary sight of hundreds of Peruvian Indians extracting salt from the 4,000 pools that hug the side of a mountain not far from Machu Picchu.
Harvesting techniques here have barely changed since the days of the Inca Empire.
Above the sacred valley of the Urubamba, vultures circle tirelessly. Towering over them, a looming snow-covered peak appears to pierce the sky.
“The conquistadors christened this mountain Veronica,” says our guide Vilma.
“The Incas called it Sacred Tears: Huakay Willka. And the people of Maras still use the Quechua name.
It reaffirms to them that the salt crystals they harvest are really the tears of the Inca.”
Vilma leads us along the secret trail to the Maras salt works, a vertiginous site clinging to the slopes of the Andes.
This is a magical place where visitors have begun to arrive since UNESCO gave it World Heritage status; and more importantly, since the Shining Path guerrillas, who once prevented any access, laid down their arms.
“This type of salt extraction is unique in the world, and existed well before the Incas,” explains Vilma.
“Nothing has changed for centuries: neither the techniques used, nor the tools, nor even the local shamanistic beliefs.
This place is an incredible example of pre-Columbian ways that have been miraculously preserved.”
Vilma speaks Quechua as well as she speaks Spanish. A graduate from Cuzco – the ancient Inca capital 70 km to the south – she became a guide to earn a living.
She’s passionate about the extraordinary salt works, which are fed solely by springs emerging from the heart of the mountains - a natural phenomenon that still baffles scientists.
All along the sheer path, Vilma talks about the Incas with knowledge and admiration, never running out of praise for the great civilization that flourished until the 16th Century, at which time it was decimated by the Spanish in a few short years.
We seem to walk endlessly, breathless from the altitude (more than 3,000 metres), through a canyon at the bottom of which, between the eucalyptus and cactus, rushes a silt-laden torrent hemmed in by whitish concretions.
“We’ve found many Inca tombs along the riverbanks,” says Vilma. “We call it Cachi Unu Mayu – the saltwater river. Taste it and you’ll understand why - the pozos (terraces) are nearby.” We taste, and Vilma is amused by our expressions: the lukewarm water is horribly salty, with a distinct taste of sulphur and iron.
Around a bend, the salt works appear: chalky-white scars that stand out against the ochre mountains. It’s a spectacle that would take the breath away – if that was still possible! The path overhangs this astounding labyrinth of pools, which form a tangled patchwork of brown and white.
Scattered across this almost polar world (the crust of salt crystals resembles ice), where the temperature is above 30°C, strange creatures in tall hats jump, with legs together, on little sparkling mounds. One of them, a jolly-faced old woman, calls out to us in Spanish: “Welcome. My name is Felicidad. I began working here at the age of 10. I’m now 78, but nothing has changed since my childhood - or since my parents’ and grandparents’.”
Felicidad comes to the salt pools every day from the village of Maras. It’s a one-hour walk down the mountain, always in the company of dozens of other families. Assisted by the men of the village, and sometimes by the children when they aren’t at school, Felicidad packs the salt down with her feet (which are covered with old tyre rubber) to drive out the water. Then she scrapes the briny paste with wooden boards to clean off the soil. After several weeks of evaporation, harvest time arrives. The men carry the salt to a path below an ancient Inca warehouse made from perfectly carved stone, in baskets as large as they are (weighing more than 50 Kg). The baskets are then transported to the road by donkeys.
‘The only development since Inca times,” Felicidad says,”are the trucks that load up with salt and deliver it across the region.”
Felicidad and her family operate a dozen pozos. She earns 50 soles (around 13 Euros) each month. “Luckily we have vegetables and livestock,” she declares as she resumes her strange dance, “otherwise we couldn’t live.”
Local legend tells of a powerful Inca chief who in ancient times exploited the Yucay valley. He demanded excessive tribute from his Indian workers, and in retaliation, they covered their salt flats to render them useless. But the salt re-emerged through two twin springs, and this is how the Inca god Inti gave the saltpans of Maras to the Yucay Indians. These greatly revered and fertile springs still bear the names China (female) and Orko (male). For centuries, whatever the season, they have fed the pozos at the same rate without fail (about a litre per second for the first spring and four for the second), at a constant temperature (22°C), and with an unchanging chemical composition (10% sodium salt, and 10% to 12% aluminium, copper and silver salts). It’s an enigma for geologists who’ve studied the phenomenon.
Today, on the seven hectares of saltpans that over time have been formed into terraces by the inhabitants of Maras and neighbouring village Pichingoto, there are no fewer than 4,000 stone and clay pools that trap the saline water. Each family owns 10 to 20 of these Pozos, and harvests an average of 500 kg of salt per month.
Eloy Arroyo, 30, is one of those responsible for the Marasal - the collective that manages the salt works. Its aim is to prevent big business taking control and to avoid worker exploitation and corruption of the administrators by influences outside of the village, as has often been the case in the past. Eloy himself was chosen for his integrity.
“I work twenty terraces,” he says. “But even I don’t have more. The purest category of salt, Extra, sells in the market for just one sol (25 Eurocents) per kilo. For years the Minister of Health has been telling us to add iodine to our harvest. But my parents and all my ancestors always ate it pure and they never got goitre or suffered mental degeneration, like the civil servants in Lima told us they would. The only things we suffer from are burns on the eyes and skin. And of course rheumatism, due to the humidity.”
Eloy assures us that a poultice of pink salt (the least refined category) will cure aches and pains as if by magic. On condition, he adds, that the crystals are wrapped in a black cloth. “The Gringos (westerners) want to hold baptisms in the springs, and be treated with our traditional medicines,” Eloy adds with obvious pride. “Just like the Inca times.”
Foreign visitors today pay an entry fee and have guides, and the salt pools of Maras could become a major regional tourist attraction alongside Machu Picchu, rafting on the Urubamba, and trekking along the Inca Trail. At least that’s the hope of Prom Peru, the organisation responsible for promoting national tourism. Eloy and the last salt slaves don’t see any other way to save the land where Inti the sun god once gave them freedom. Chinchero, an Indian market town, has become El Dorado for tour operators; and Cuzco, the Incan Centre of the Universe is today overrun with pizzerias. But the Maras workings no longer bring in money in a world where industrial salt is one-tenth of the price - a thousand pozos are today abandoned because they aren’t profitable. Salt is bartered at knockdown prices with the tanners of Cuzco or the livestock breeders of the Altiplano, in exchange for potatoes or maize, leaving the peasants in bowler hats with little choice but to hold out their hand after each tourist photo. Even worse, sold for a pittance to Electro Peru for gritting snow-covered roads, the white gold of the Incas now leaves a bitter taste.
Only the Japanese are interested in Maras, confides Eloy while trampling his pozos. A few years ago some Japanese tourists arrived, braving the menace of the Shining Path, and took home a few bags of salt as souvenirs. Ever since then, the cooks in the Land of the Rising Sun have sworn by this miraculous gift of heaven, which comes from the distant land of the ultimate sun god worshippers. They voted the gems of Maras the “best salt in the world”. And every year Tokyo imports some 22 tonnes of ‘Inca tears’. The ancients are crying again - but this time it’s with joy.
Copyright © Jean-François Mongibeaux and Eric Pasquier
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