MARAS, Aug 16 — What is the price of salt? Many would hardly spare a second’s thought to this question since the mineral has been so ubiquitous in kitchens and on dining tables for centuries. Yet it’s an interesting question nonetheless for salt does not simply fall from the heavens. Not in Maras, at any rate.
In this ancient Peruvian town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas (though at times it feels more like a ghost town, as one has to travel across miles of dusty plains to reach it), salt “farming” is more than just a traditional way of life; it is both a source of income and a community activity for many residents.
Located 40 kilometres north of Cuzco (the nearest city, celebrated for its Inca ruins), Maras is dotted with a striking spread of salt evaporation ponds. These ponds, known locally as Salineras de Maras, have been in use since Inca times and are believed to have been built by the Chanapata people between 200 and 900 A.D.
This, we tell ourselves, is definitely worth the journey.
When we finally reach Maras after hours of being squeezed in a tiny van from Cuzco, we are simply relieved to get out and stretch our legs. All thoughts of salt have long escaped our mind. The ability to feel our toes and derrières is more pressing, to be honest. Yet when our guide points at the valley below us, the view takes our breath away, clichéd as this may sound.
Imagine a sea of red dust: the windswept, mountainous and starkly beautiful landscape of the Sacred Valley resembling more a desert than the birthplace of the Incas. Then imagine the valley being covered by a spider-web of snow... The effect is astonishing, and more so once you realise it’s not snow but ponds of salt you’re witnessing.
The salt water emerges in these man-made ponds, which originates from a spring called Qoripujio. There is an intricate layered terrace of water channels that flows downwards into hundreds of these ponds. Slowly, through exposure to the sun and elements, the water evaporates leaving the salt on the surface to accumulate.
It takes a delicate sort of balance to walk on the “snow” tracks interweaving between different salt evaporation ponds. Some tracks are wide enough that we can walk with ease; others require we put one foot in front of the other, as though we are navigating a tightrope.
The effort is worth it because no two ponds are the same. Some are shallower, others wide and deep. Some are in the middle of the evaporation process while we see farmers already harvesting their salt in other ponds. We don’t speak Spanish, unfortunately, but the farmers return our smiles in kind, their wrinkled faces several shades darker than ours after a lifetime of working under the sun.
The ponds are mostly owned by families living in the area, passing down from one generation to the next. The harvested salt are then transported to be sold in the markets. While each family manages their own ponds, they are also a tight-knit community, joking with one another and offering help when needed.
Walking back from the ponds, we stop for a quick meal of tamales, a traditional South American dish made from masa (a mix of corn and lard) wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves and boiled. It’s simple peasant fare, something the farmers would eat to sustain them throughout a day’s hard work.
It’s not easy “farming” salt, though we wouldn’t know it, given how readily salt is available, sprinkled onto the food we’re cooking or resting in shakers at dining tables.
What’s the price of salt? We look at the weather-worn, hardworking farmers still out there at their salt evaporation ponds, and we see the answer.
Before we leave Maras, we scour the row of ramshackle stalls offering artisanal handicraft, corn in a multitude of colours, and (what else?) salt in all shapes and sizes — from large, crystalline shards to fine powder spiked with dried herbs. Naturally, it’s the salt that we buy to bring home. These precious packets will make for better souvenirs than fridge magnets made in China or postcards we’ll inevitably forget to send.
For every time we take a pinch of salt in between our fingers and sprinkle it on our food, we will remember Maras, her “snow”-covered valleys and her farmers of salt.