Salt of the Earth

On our bus trip yesterday, late afternoon stop was just outside the town of Maras. When the bus stopped it was cold. We all put on layers and windbreakers and piled off the bus. Down below us was a vast interlocking series of white pools. It is where salt has been farmed since the time of the Incas.

As our guide Valentin explained it to us, “There’s a massive solid layer of salt underneath Maras. Millions of years ago, the ocean was here. This salt is the remainder.”

The Incas who lived here tasted the water and realized that it was extremely salty. Because they were master hydrologists, they designed and engineered the first salt ponds. They have no written language, but they were able to create a wonder of engineering like this. Valentin explained, “This place was one of the keys of Incan civilization. Salt has always been an essential commodity. They controlled people by withholding salt because everyone in the world needs salt.

Now the salt mines are owned by the local people. Each pool is owned by a different family and they earn the money that comes from that part of the salt harvest. Valentin’s family once had a salt pool, but when they moved out of the community, they lost their rights to their pool.

Valentin told us, “The money you paid to come in here goes to the local community. When you pay to go into Machu Picchu, it goes into the pocket of the king so he can drink the finest wine.”

(Remember to read the captions under posts. The story continues there.)

Our first view of Maras.

As we stood on the landing above the salt pools, one woman said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Me either,” said another. None of us had.

Three women working to collect the salt with a wooden tool.

Each pool is connected to the adjacent pool. They’re all interconnected by a big network of aqueducts.

Under the mountain is a salt dome as well as a geothermal hot spring. The hot spring runs through the salt dome. It picks up as much salt as it possibly can until it fully saturated. The water that comes out of the mountain is ten times saltier than ocean water. As it cools and evaporates, salt falls to the bottom. People rake it up from the bottom to harvest it.

The top layer is very white, the cleanest salt. The bottom layer is the brown, dirtier and more claylike. The bottom salt is sold to cattle farms to make salt licks for the cows. The top layer is refined and sold in many different forms. It’s mixed with chocolate, sold as table salt, made into bath salts, medicinal salts and salts of many flavors, all of which were for sale as we exited Maras. The shopkeepers were very happy to see us at the end of their long day of work—we had a whole bus full of eager customers.

What’s left after the water evaporates.

Salt crusting between pools.

Isn’t that awesome?

Twenty-six days is the minimum number of days to get to the first draw off of the top salt, the “flor de sal.”

Bags of salt.

As we stood on the landing above the salt pools, one woman said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Me either,” said another. None of us had.

Warm salty water comes in from under the mountain and each family controls how much water goes into their pool by manipulating these rocks. It’s a very simple system. You lift this rock and the piece of plastic underneath and the water flows into the pool. When you want to allow the filled pool to cool and evaporate, you put the plastic and rock in place, blocking the flow of water.

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