While ruins are an incredible reminder of the history of a given location, after I’ve seen a few, they start to lose their appeal. If you’re near Cusco and have hit your ruin plateau, I’d like to suggest a visit to the beautiful Maras Salt Mines. Also often referred to as Salineras de Maras, Maras Salt Flats or the ancient salt pans.
How the Maras Salt Mine Works
The salt mines, dating back to pre-Inca times, consist of hundreds of cascading pools that are strategically dug into the mountainside and fed by a subterranean natural spring. The pools are filled at less than 1 foot deep. They’re then allowed to evaporate, resulting in the formation of various size salt crystals on the walls and floor of the salt flat. Once ready for harvest, a member of the cooperative scrapes the salt crystals from the sides and bottom of the pool.
Below, you see the salt pans at varying stages. The brown color indicates that the pool was recently harvested and re-filled, and will require about 2 weeks to crystallize. Those that are white have crystallized and are ready to dry out for harvest.
Once the salt is harvested, it’s placed into a 25kg bag that is sent to a factory to be cleaned and iodized for commercial use. It is, however, possible to eat the salt directly from the pan. Commercialism, man. And health restrictions, I suppose.
Post-harvest, the base of the salt pan is repacked using shovels (if needed), then refilled via the impressive natural irrigation system. The cycle continues.
How to get there
There are plenty of tour companies who will very graciously bring you to the Maras Salt Mines. If that’s your jam, I say go for it. You have someone there giving you a rundown of the history and a free ride. Why not?
I, personally, tend to be a little more of an “off the beaten path” tourist. And I was a little ruined out (most tours group the Moray ruins and the Maras Salt Pans together). I chose to get a colectivo, which is essentially a shared mini van. For reference, the colectivo cost from Cusco was 6 soles versus the 160 soles the nearby taxi drivers were charging.
Below is a better description of how, exactly, this works:
- Go to the colectivo station on Avenida Grau in Cusco
- The colectivos have a sign on their windshield indicating where they’re headed. Find one heading to Urubamba, and let the driver know that you would like to stop off at Maras
- At the Maras stop crossroad (below), you’ll need to hire a taxi to take you to the mines. There are drivers waiting everywhere. I can’t remember exactly what my taxi charged, but I think it was around 30 soles to drive me there, wait an hour, and then drive me back to the colectivo station. That price took some negotiating.
- Once you’re ready to return to Cusco, flag down any colectivo (mine was just a normal passenger car this time) and they’ll gladly give you a ride to a central destination if they’re headed that way. The ride obviously comes with a fee that you should negotiate before getting into the car.
One thing to note is that effective June 15, 2019, tourists are no longer able to enter the crystallized pond area due to contaminants found in the salt. For more information on this change, reference this link. In my opinion, it was still worth the trip to see this unique and historical wonder.