17 February 2018

The Ancient Salt Ponds of Maras, Peru

Before the rise of the Inca Empire, those with an eye to make money but no aversion to hard work, made their way to Maras.  There, a subterranean stream surfaced and its waters were rich with salt.  Deep underground there is a vast deposit of salt, perhaps the remnant of some prehistoric ocean. Hundreds of miles from the sea, this led to a small but important local industry supplying indigenous communities with salt.  The ponds which were created to evaporate the water, leaving the salt behind, still exist and are worked to this day in the same way.

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The Maras Salt Ponds are situated along a dirt road off the main highway between modern Cuzco and the surrounding towns.  Even today it is considered inaccessible, being at the end of a vertiginous mountain road. In the time of the Inca the conveyance of salt to the corners of the vast empire must have been an incredible feat.  Yet even at its source its collection was not as straightforward as simply raking it from the ground. Over centuries a network of ponds were created with an ingenious method of water control which ensured a steady supply of the valuable commodity.

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The ponds number in their several hundred and all are deliberately created to be less than four square meters in area – with a depth always of less than thirty centimeters.  These almost exact measurements must have been reached by a painstaking system of trial and error. Yet it was worth it – a person can place their hands in the stream and remove them to find they have salt deposited on them.  Such a resource could not be ignored.

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Construction must have taken generations. The seemingly countless ponds were built down the side of the hill so that as the altitude decreased water was allowed to flow through a complex network of small channels, extended slowly but surely as the number of ponds increased.  On the side of each pond there is an outlet for the channel through which the water can be released, as it is needed, in to its pond.

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It is not known by how many years this maze of channels predates the Inca Empire, if indeed it does. Yet it is certain that by the time the Incas were at their height, with the local city of Cusco their capital, the intricate system at Maras demanded a complex response from the community. It was one which, to our modern eyes, might appear surprisingly democratic.

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The local people developed a cooperative system which allowed the collection of salt which is still in place today.  Although outsiders who settled the area were (and still are) allowed a pond of their own they had to take one at the extreme bottom periphery of the system, working their way inwards and upwards through the course of generations.  The salt collected at the top is pure white, further down it is colored due to the sediment which has collected in the ponds.

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As the sun warms the ponds then water evaporates.  Soon, what is left becomes supersaturated – there is more salt in the water than could naturally be dissolved – and it precipitates: much of it becomes solid once again.  The walls and bottom of the ponds become covered with salt crystals of many different sizes.  At this point the pond keeper closes the water feed so that the rest of the pond can go dry.

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After the water has completely evaporated then the pond’s keeper can collect the salt.  It comes in many different shades which are dependent on the skills of the workers.  The whole process can then start again, with the notch re-opened and the water allowed to flow back in to the pond. 

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The community which has lived in and around the salt ponds of Maras for so many hundreds of years is called Kachi.  It should be no surprise to discover that this translates as salt in the local language.

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