Few travel experiences beat rounding a corner and, out of the blue, clapping your eyes on something so remarkable and unexpected that your jaw drops. Getting that ‘wow’ feeling when you least expect it is one of the greatest joys of exploration.
The first time I saw the salt ponds of Maras, high in the Andes above the Sacred Valley, I experienced that feeling. Driving down off the high altitude plateau from the Inca archaeological site of Moray, my family and I had assumed we had had our quota of incredible sights for the day. We rounded a nondescript corner, only to be greeted by an astonishing and incongruous patchwork quilt of salt ponds.
We immediately braked, parked and, piling out of the car, did a double-, followed by a triple-, take.
Carved neatly into the mountainside like some sort of extra-terrestrial maze of Moroccan tannery-baths was what appeared to be a snow-dusted swathe of terracotta-coloured paddy fields, hugging the mountainside as if clad in Brown Watch dress tartan.
We actually squealed at the sight below. It was so surreal and spectacular that we immediately put our evening travel plans on hold, altering our journey to take in the entrance of the salt evaporation ponds.
As we arrived, the mountain’s shadow cut across the middle of the ponds, as only a handful of salt farmers continued to ply their trade in the late afternoon. Approaching the patchwork of ponds from the top entrance, the intricate system of gullies, channels and irrigation gutters soon became apparent. Walking between the different levels you could clearly see how the local subterranean water source had been diverted to feed each of the thousand-plus ponds. It is so efficient and ingenious in its design that salty spring water is directed down, through, across, over and among the myriad of ancient ponds by gravity alone.
The whole process is ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable. The ponds, measuring no more than an average of four square metres in diameter and thirty centimetres in depth, allow the water to evaporate into the dry mountain air, depositing salt crystals onto their earthen walls and floor. The longevity of the structure is as impressive as the Inca terracing nearby, dating back as it does to AD200 when the pre-Inca Chanapata people developed the ponds to extract the all-important salt, so naturally scarce in this Andean world. Continually shared among the local Maras community, the ponds are harvested today as effectively as they have been for thousands of years.
Even amidst the majesty of this region of Peruvian Andes, with so many Inca spectaculars, as well as natural big-sky landscapes, this simple, ancient, man-made spectacle is charming and inspiring.
I highly recommend it. We at Nomadic Thoughts continue to incorporate it into our client itineraries whenever possible.
If you do visit you will understand the meaning of ‘worth your salt’, which is: ‘deserving of your pay’. The simple practice of naturally filling a salt pond with saline spring water, letting it evaporate over a couple of days and harvesting thereafter.
Stunningly located, majestically simple and bursting with ’wow’ factor.