Sea salt makes everything taste better. Somewhere in Ecuador we ran out of the big Costco sea salt that we initially brought with us on our trip and our camp cooking just wasn’t the same. Until we found sea salt once again in Lima, Peru, which turned out to be a locally harvested sea salt.
Salinas de Maras – a mountain terrace of salt pools in the middle of the Sacred Valley. One of the coolest places ever.
Since pre-Inca times, the people of Maras have been harvesting these thousands of little salt pools carved into the hillside, fed by a salty stream coming out of the rocks. The pools are owned by the community. Every family has rights to work their own pools and sell the salt they harvest. A small portion of the salt is exported but most is sold within Peru. And unlike other Sacred Valley sights, proceeds from tourism (10 soles per entry, about US$3) is collected by the cooperative and used to better the community. Considering that Machu Picchu has a cap of 2500 visitors per day, and most days are “sold out,” if just 10% of these visitors also visit the Salinas de Maras, that is almost $300,000 from entry fees alone! That is a lot of money for a small mountain town in Peru.
It was amazing that they would let visitors teeter on the narrow salt encrusted pathways. Some parts further down were half the width of this picture where I had to put away the camera and held on to Ty’s shirt. I wonder how many had fallen into the pools below. Ty definitely got his feet wet a few times.
The uppermost pools seemed to not be “used” due to all the foot traffic. Here is Ty’s face once he figured out he could play with the salt water and crystals.
One of the best things about the salt pools was the shopping. We walked away with two pounds of pink salt. It was ridiculously cheap, like 5 soles for a pound, less than US$2. And there were other stalls that were even cheaper, 5 soles for 2 pounds! Since the pools were worked on by individual families, it was interesting to note that not all the salt were of the same quality. We picked ours based on the color, pinkish but not too dark and not too light – although we really had no idea what was right. And then there was the dark chocolate with sea salt, enjoyed by the equally salt-encrusted Jamie.
We spent the night in the visitors parking lot after our visit. Here we were eating dinner on the side of the parking lot. Road life is fun but not very glamourous.
The next morning we drove through the township of Maras. I loved that on these narrow cobblestone streets, every door could open to unexpected treasures. It could be just a kitchen, a beautiful garden, or a courtyard with a cow, or a herd of sheep coming out.
We were on our way to see Moray, an Inca archeological site that is thought to be a giant agriculture laboratory. The terraces, due to the differing heights and orientations, were exposed to different “micro-climate” of sun, wind and temperatures. The Incas were definitely creative and industrious.
We arrived first thing in the morning and had the place to ourselves. Honestly we had no idea that we were not supposed to climb on these impressively built stone terraces. Somehow we walked all the way down without noticing the dozens of non-strategically-placed no entry signs. We played for a long while at the bottom until someone at the top started blowing the whistle at us. As we slowly climbed back to the top, we saw another tourist descending innocently to the bottom.
From Moray we took a beautiful back road drive to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is both the name of the town and an Inca archeological site. The town itself has streets that still look just like how it did during Inca times. It was fun to just wander the back streets to imagine life here hundreds of years ago.
We visited the archeological site one morning and were lucky enough to be the first and only ones there, and were able to explore this popular historic place as if it was our private playground. From Moray, we also learned that if we took the harness off Luna, people would assume she was just one of the many roaming street dogs and she would be able to accompany us on these technically no dogs allowed sites. Even though she was following us, no foreign family in their right mind would travel to Cusco with their dog right?
The fortress of Ollantaytambo was where the Incas won a rare battle against the Spanish, that is until they came back days later with a bigger troop. The site was religious as well, with a partially finished Temple of the Sun, where the Wall of the Six Monoliths is made up of expertly chiseled giant stones that weigh over 50 tons each, hauled from a quarry miles away to the top of this mountain. There are immense terraces and stairways dry-stacked from large cut stones or smaller field stones. Also beautiful water features of canals and fountains built with stones and powered by gravity, all working perfectly still after hundreds of years.
Within Cusco itself, there are many smaller Inca ruins since it was the capital of the empire. The most prominent is Sacsayhuaman, a fortress complex built on a hill overlooking the city and walkable just a few minutes from our campsite. After the Spanish seized Cusco, they used Sacsayhuaman as a source of stones for their buildings and it is said that all important Spanish architecture in Cusco contain stones from Sacsayhuaman. The only stones left now at the site are the largest ones at the base that the Spanish could not easily move.
After seeing all these wonderful Inca ruins, we were inspired to see the most iconic of it all, Machu Picchu. We were on our way to Santa Teresa, from where one could hike for a few hours into Aguas Calientes, the “town” of Machu Picchu, as opposed to the normal way of taking the train from Cusco or Ollanta, on which dogs were not allowed. But one thing after another – a broken track bar (again), horrendous sand flies, Ty developing a fever – sent us back to the Cusco campground to recuperate and we decided MP was not meant for us this time. It was just as well since we felt like we ended on a good note. This area was beautiful and fascinating but also hectic after a while, always surrounded by thousands of other tourists. So after two and a half weeks in the area, we decided to move on further south towards the Chilean border.