History of the Salineras
Back in the 1400s even the amazingly clever Incas hadn’t figured out that salt might cause high blood pressure, but they knew it tasted good so they made and consumed a lot of it. Oh those were the days!
About 30 miles from Cusco you can tour the Salineras de Maras. Our group muddled out there on a gloomy day but, even in the gloom, the salt ponds were visually impressive. Per our guide, about 300 local families own the 3,000 ponds that are terraced down the hillside. The ponds are passed on to subsequent generations. (So if you get a flyer in the mail or a message in your Spam that someone wants to sell you one of these salt ponds you should be highly skeptical. Although if it’s a call from a telemarketer it’s probably legit.)
The Incas didn’t have a written language so knowing that they didn’t write anything that will contradict our explanation is rather freeing. So here it goes. It’s a chicken or egg thing. Did they know the hill was rich with salt or that a spring fed the hill? Or both?
The process of creating the salt
Regardless, they found a spring that somewhere along the line was named Qoripujio. The stream feeds the ponds through a series of small aqueducts that must be opened and blocked for each pond. In the dry season the main spigot of the spring (work with us here) is turned on and the ponds fill and then are emptied. The remaining water takes about a month to evaporate and leave the crystallized salt.
When things get to the point of more salt crystals than water then the owners of the ponds go and, generally using a piece of wood, manually scrape out the salt. Whatever they scrape up is then put into a basket to drain. We were told they traditionally used reed or bamboo baskets but they were using plastic ones when we were there.
The basket allows the water to drain out and the salt to remain (even a blonde can follow this). After the salt is sufficiently dry it’s bagged and hauled up the hill.
This isn’t a very lucrative business for the owners of the ponds.
These ponds produce pink salt, salts for bath therapies, salts that get combined with flavorings and even salt for animals to lick. In Incan times it may have been used in religious rituals or for mummification.
Our highly trained and well paid research department (a 22 year old cat) learned that salt is mostly sold regionally as it’s heavy and, therefore, expensive to transport. Salt is not traded on any exchanges, there is no derivatives market and there is not much international trade. And, to the extent that salt is popular enough to ship and sell at a premium it’s mostly fancy pants French sea salt for cooking, not déclassé land salt from Peru.
But in an area such as Maras it isn’t hard to imagine that even the little income earned from this process could be critical to a family’s survival.
So be a good sport if you go there and buy some of the flavored salts and other over-priced souvenirs they sell. You know that when you get home you’re going to head to Whole Foods for some of that French sea salt and not even look at the price. But just try to go to France and watch them harvest that salt and get photo opps and no attitude.
That’s so not happening.