It’s one thing to gaze spellbound at the ruins of Machu Picchu or marvel at the engineering ingenuity found at the agricultural terraces of Moray. It’s another thing entirely to see the salt mines of Salineras, especially since they are still worked today. The salt pools at Salineras are not ancient ruins, they are not a “thing” of the ancient past. They are alive and real.
I knew I wanted to visit Salineras after seeing a picture of it. I was dumbstruck by these giant pools, a landscape that looked almost mythical for how incredible a sight it was. I’ll admit it, my knowledge of the whole salt process is pretty much non-existent. Sure, I use salt-I buy the cylindrical carton that costs less than a dollar, I splurge on the classier sea salt, I even still aspire to try Himalayan pink salt sometime. But in regards to where the salt that I use for cooking and seasoning comes from, I was completely ignorant.
The salt pools date back to even before the Inca (that’s how old they are). They were a place of extreme importance for Peruvians’ ancestors and even today, a thousand years later, still remain significant for surrounding communities. The salt pools are passed down from generation to generation; they are never sold to outsiders. Families cultivate the salt and prepare it for purchase.
Like many sights in the Sacred Valley, Salineras is in the middle of nowhere (well, it’s within an hour drive of the town of Maras, but Maras isn’t exactly New York City). Each salt pool is privately owned by a family although all of the families work together for the overall maintenance of the pools. Admission to Salineras costs 7 soles which you pay at a gatehouse a mile or so from the actual pools. Our guide explained that admission prices help the families with upkeep, materials, and also education. It seemed like a small cost to pay to see such an amazing sight.
Parking seemed somewhat limited but thankfully D and I didn’t have to worry about that. The parking area is about a 15 minute walk (more or less depending on your fitness level) from where you can actually access the pools. You walk down steep hills/steps, ultimately passing through a “shopper’s mecca” of random tourist trap shops until you are finally upon them.
Being up close to them, I was amazed at each pool’s sheer size. We were told that the workers mined the pools six days a week, but Sunday (the day we visited) was their day off. I was disappointed to hear that the children of the families worked at the mines too…disappointed but sadly not surprised. The term backbreaking work, this aptly describes Salineras. I asked our guide about the pools at the very bottom of the hill/mountain. Did they have to cart up everything to the top? He said yes. Backbreaking indeed.
I learned that day that even though salt is a principal crop in Peru, the country actually imports more salt from Bolivia because it is cheaper. Sadly, this always seems to be the way no matter where you are in the world.
While I’m sure I would have liked witnessing the workers live, I’m somewhat glad I didn’t. Although I know that my and other tourist dollars go directly to them for their own benefit, I think I still would have felt like a “first world gawker.” I saw the bursting bags of harvested salt at the top, bags that probably weighed a couple of hundred pounds each.
Peru is a country that has no shortage of sights and places you will never forget, but I don’t think anything will compare to the salt pools of Salineras.
Tips for visiting!
-Salineras, like Moray, is at a high altitude (almost 11,000 feet, 3300 meters). Between the altitude and the fact that there is significant climbing involved, take your time and listen to your body. Rest if you need to and drink plenty of water. After visiting Moray first and then here, I was really feeling crummy afterwards during the hike back to the van.
-Wear closed toe shoes, preferably something with good traction. As the pools contain open water and other deposits, the ground in some areas can be slick. This, paired with the passageways for walking being very narrow, requires your being careful so you don’t “fall in.”
-Water, sun screen, and sensible clothing are all musts.
-Buy some salt! I purchased a four ounce bag of cooking salt for two soles for less than $1 USD! I can’t wait to use it.